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Bomb disposal squad in Gaza faces risks amid little protection | Palestine News



Gaza City, Gaza – On May 19, shortly after midnight, a reconnaissance missile tore through the roof of the Muhareb family home in Rafah in the south of the besieged Gaza Strip.

Two minutes later, an Israeli warplane dropped another missile, which crashed through two storeys of the house, but somehow did not explode.

“My brother and his family, who live on the second floor, were all injured from the reconnaissance missile,” Waseem Muhareb told Al Jazeera. “My four-month-old baby was in a coma for two days, and my eight-year-old niece Layan was in the intensive care unit for 10 days with burns all over her body.”

The extended Muhareb family home, inhabited by 36 adults and children, was ruined. The second missile had crashed through one of the children’s bedrooms before landing on the first floor.

“There was no warning,” said Waseem, whose family is now living in rented accommodation nearby. “The entire ordeal happened within the space of three minutes.”

A winged interstitial missile widely used by Israeli military planes in the recent aggression on Gaza
[Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Risks and dangers

The following day, the bomb disposal squad arrived and removed the unexploded ordnance as well as the remnants of the reconnaissance projectile.

The squad, which operates under the interior ministry, has carried out 1,200 missions to to neutralise, defuse and destroy unexploded warheads and dangerous munitions in residential areas of Gaza since May 10, when Israel began an 11-day bombardment of the coastal enclave.

The escalation in violence followed a crackdown by Israeli forces on protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem. Hamas, the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, issued an ultimatum for Israeli forces to withdraw from the area around the holy site, which is also sacred to Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.

After the ultimatum expired, Hamas fired several rockets towards Jerusalem and shortly afterwards Israel launched air raids on Gaza. The Israeli bombardment continued for 11 days and killed at least 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, according to health authorities. Rockets fired by armed groups in Gaza killed at least 13 people in Israel. Hamas and Israel agreed to a ceasefire on May 21.

The bombardment of Gaza caused widespread damage to infrastructure, including the destruction of 1,800 housing units, 74 public buildings, 53 educational facilities, and 33 media offices. The damage to a water desalination plant has also left more than 250,000 Palestinians without clean drinking water.

Captain Mahmoud Meqdad, an explosives engineer at Gaza’s interior ministry, told Al Jazeera that the 70-person bomb disposal squad has not suffered a casualty during their work since May 10, despite a lack of vital protective equipment.

“The team doesn’t have protective vests or high-tech equipment that can reveal the presence of explosives,” Meqdad said. “They only have simple equipment, like a toolbox that can be found in almost every household.”

The engineer said that under a crippling 13-year Israeli blockade of Gaza, the entry of protective equipment used by bomb disposal teams in Gaza has been prohibited.

Meqdad said the main risk associated with the job during the Israeli offensive was the possibility that the team could be targeted.

“The second risk is the type of munitions Israel dropped, how dangerous they are, and whether the assigned technician could gauge all of that with the rudimentary equipment at his disposal,” Meqdad said.

The final step in the process of collecting and neutralising unexploded munitions is to transfer them to the central warehouse, located in Rafah, in preparation for their destruction.

Meqdad said that the recent offensive witnessed a new type of weaponry used for the first time on the Gaza Strip – the GBU-31 and GBU-39 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) explosives. Developed to penetrate heavily fortified military sites, the two-tonne explosives were used in levelling high-rise buildings that housed residential apartments, as well as commercial and media offices.

Captain Mohammed Meqdad shows the remnants of Israeli warheads that exploded on the Abu al-Ouf building during an attack on Wehda Street [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Trainings and field experience

The bomb disposal squad was established in 1996 when the Palestinian Authority ruled Gaza. The first team was given a course by experts from the United States, and in 2006, the team was strengthened by the addition of more engineers and technicians.

Following the deadly 2008-2009 Israeli offensive on Gaza, the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) began its operations in addition to training the ministry of interior’s bomb disposal squad.

Between 2014 and 2020, UNMAS responded to 876 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) requests,gh               5 directly removed and destroyed 150 large aerial bombs containing 29,500 kilograms of explosive materials, and supported the clearance of 7,340 explosive remnants of war (ERW) items.

Meqdad said new recruits to the bomb disposal squad receive their training from current employees, based on their own years of experience working in the field.

“During the past 10-11 years, no one working in this field has left Gaza to receive training outside,” he said.

An exhibition showcasing explosive remnants of war (ERW) is displayed at the headquarters of the explosives engineering unit in Gaza City [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

‘Every day can be your last’

Asad al-Aloul, who has been the head of the bomb disposal squad for the past eight years, said their work is the most dangerous within the security division, which includes the police and internal security agencies.

“Choosing to work in this field is our choice and a mark of honour as we remove any harm and dangers that threaten our citizens,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Merely working in explosives engineering means you are a martyr,” he added. “Every day you leave to your job can mean your last day on earth, because any mistake means it will be the last mistake you make – no exceptions.”

In 2014, three technicians from the bomb disposal squad were killed, in addition to a foreign journalist and a Palestinian translator present at the scene, after an attempt at defusing a missile in northern Gaza.

Despite the risks of the job, al-Aloul said he has not considered stopping work.

“Who else will take over and protect our children from injuries or death, knowing all these risks?” he said. “We work in order to provide a better future for the upcoming generation so that they won’t have to live with amputations caused by an exploding missile or bomb.”

“Every day you see death, but the saviour is God. It is an honour to die while defending our people.”

Palestinian children playing on top of an unexploded Israeli missile that was neutralised by the bomb disposal squad [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

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Nic Dlamini is set to be first black South African at Tour de France




South African cyclist Nic Dlamini
Nic Dlamini is set to become the first black South African to ride the Tour de France

Nic Dlamini will make history at this year’s Tour de France by being the first black South African to compete in cycling’s most famous race.

The 25-year-old will be one of the eight riders for Africa’s only top-flight professional cycling team Qhubeka-Assos at the Tour, which runs from 26 June until 18 July.

He will be the only African on the team that will be jointly led by Australia’s Simon Clarke and Austrian Michael Gogl as well as including the Italian 2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru.

“Being selected to ride in my first Tour de France is an absolute dream come true for me,” Dlimani said.external-link

“It’s always been an childhood dream and now that I’m about to live it makes it feel surreal.

“I think it speaks to what the team is about, the Ubuntu spirit [I am because we are], and how we change people’s lives because it is honestly a very special moment: to come from a small township and then to go to the Tour de France.”

He becomes the latest rider to progress from the South African-registered team’s development squad and onto the UCI WorldTour.

Humble beginnings

South African cyclist Nic Dlamini

The 25-year-old, who grew up in an informal settlement in Cape Town, first caught the eye as a runner before moving into cycling where his talents saw him move to the UCI’s World Cycling Centre Africa in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

“Considering where I come from it would simply have been impossible for me to have the opportunity to ride at the Tour de France if it wasn’t for Team Qhubeka-Assos,” he explained.

“The platform that they’ve provided me, and other riders from Africa, to compete at the highest level in cycling has been critical.

“I really hope that this will serve as a reference of hope and inspiration to many young South Africans, and people around the world, who have been working really hard to reach their dreams. My hope is that they take from this that anything is possible.

“I want to race the Tour to inspire more kids on Qhubeka bikes to follow in my footsteps and to experience the world like I have, for more kids in communities to put their hands up for bikes to work hard like I did, to dream big.”

According to the team “Dlamini’s style of racing will likely see his talents deployed in the offensive strategy the team will look to pursue during the race, while also playing a key supporting role in the flatter stages.”

The team is completed by Belgium’s Victor Campenaerts, Max Walscheid of Germany, debutant Sean Bennett of the USA and Colombian Sergio Henao.

Qhubeka-Assos’ team principal Douglas Ryder also hopes that Dlamini’s inclusion is a special moment.

“For Nic, what a moment though; his story is simply an incredible one and for him to have earned this opportunity shows that dreams really do come true, and for the team to have provided that opportunity makes me incredibly proud,” he said.

“He’s always been an individual that has stepped up and taken the opportunities that he’s fought for; and he does so again as he lines up at the startline in Brest on the sport’s biggest stage in front of the world.

“This will culminate in an incredible moment for him, South Africa and especially for our team.

“His selection speaks to everything about what we’ve created and built with this team through providing hope, an opportunity and then ultimately the platform to be on the biggest stage of all, the Tour de France.”

The only African rider to have worn the Tour de France leader’s famous ‘yellow jersey’ is Dlamini’s compatriot Darryl Impey, who wore it for two stages in 2013.

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In COVID hit Asia, mixed messages on refugee vaccinations | Coronavirus pandemic News




Medan, Indonesia – Earlier this month, dozens of Rohingya refugees landed on a deserted island off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh Province.

The refugees had been at sea for more than 100 days, having left Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh in a rickety wooden fishing boat, and were spotted huddling on uninhabited Idaman Island by local fishermen who used the island as a rest stop between fishing trips.

By June 5, just a day after their arrival, all 81 refugees, including children, had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“The refugees were vaccinated in conjunction with the local government,” Nasruddin, the humanitarian coordinator of Geutanyoe Foundation, an NGO which provides education and psychosocial support to refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia, told Al Jazeera.

“When we found them, they were in a crisis situation on the island with no food, water or electricity, so local residents brought them food and we also brought them 50 tanks of water,” he added. “The feeling on the ground was that we needed to share our vaccines with the refugees in order to protect them as well. No one complained that the vaccines were being given to refugees.”

Aceh Province has been widely praised by humanitarian groups, NGOs and the general public for vaccinating Rohingya refugees, but elsewhere in Southeast Asia, asylum seekers, refugees and migrant workers have not been so lucky.

Hard line

When Nasruddin assessed the 81 refugees on Idaman Island, they told him that they had wanted to go to Malaysia. Some had family members who were already living there, while others were under the impression that the country had a more liberal policy towards refugees than its neighbours.

Some of the Rohingya refugees who arrived in Aceh earlier this month. They told NGOs that they had wanted to go to Malaysia because they had family there or thought it would be more welcoming to refugees than other countries in Southeast Asia [Cek Mad/AFP]

But like most countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention and while the government has said it will vaccinate everyone living in the country, it has also taken a hard line on undocumented migrants and refugees, including Rohingya.

“In February, the cabinet decided that in the interest of pandemic recovery all foreigners would receive vaccination free of charge, including refugees and undocumented migrants,” Lilianne Fan, the co-founder and international director of Geutanyoe Foundation who is based in Kuala Lumpur, told Al Jazeera.

“The COVID-19 Immunisation Task Force and Science Minister Khairy Jamaluddin as coordinator of the vaccination programme, have been vocal advocates of this approach.

“However, the recent statement of the minister of home affairs that those without valid documents should not be vaccinated, combined with renewed crackdown on undocumented migrants, contradicts the government’s earlier position and will simply drive more people into hiding and slow down Malaysia’s pandemic recovery.”

Malaysia went into its second strict lockdown at the beginning of June after cases of coronavirus surged – stretching hospitals and intensive care units to the limit. The health ministry announced 6,440 new cases on Friday.

The government has indicated that it will ease the lockdown as more people are vaccinated, and Khairy has consistently stressed that the programme will include everyone living in the country.

But as it did during last year’s first lockdown, Malaysia has once again stepped up operations against undocumented migrants.

Malaysia’s Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has declared that PATI – the acronym for undocumented people in the Malay language – will be detained and sent to immigration detention centres.

This month, he stressed that undocumented migrants had to “surrender” before they would be vaccinated.

In early June, a video from state news agency Bernama showed 156 undocumented migrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar being sprayed with disinfectant in Cyberjaya, near Malaysia’s international airport, after they had been detained.

Last week the immigration department shared a post on its Facebook page – styled like a poster for an action movie – with the headline “Ethnic Rohingya migrants are not welcome”. After an outcry, but not before it had been widely shared among refugee communities, it was deleted.

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia on Monday expressed concern at “recent statements portraying migrants, undocumented or irregular migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to the safety and security of the country and a risk to the health of Malaysians” and urged the government to rethink its approach.

“Instilling fear through threats of arrests and detention of undocumented foreigners is counterproductive in light of ongoing efforts to overcome the pandemic and achieve herd immunity,” it said, stressing the clear differences in the situations of migrant workers, and refugees and asylum seekers.

Malaysia closed its borders during the first strict lockdown last year when immigration officers carried out a number of raids on areas under ‘enhanced’ lockdown. Rights groups fear more raids will deter people from coming forward for the vaccine that is crucial to Malaysia ending the COVID pandemic [File: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

Rohingya made up about 57 percent of the 179,570 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia at the end of May.

Unofficial estimates suggest the country may have as many as three million undocumented migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Widespread problem

The mixed messaging on vaccinations for refugees is not exclusive to Malaysia.

In a statement released in early June, the UN refugee agency warned that a shortage of vaccines in the Asia Pacific region was putting the lives of refugees and asylum seekers at risk.

“Refugees remain especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Overcrowded settings, coupled with limited water and sanitation facilities, can contribute to increased infection rates and an exponential spread of the virus,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said in the statement.

There are almost 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, making it the single largest and most densely populated cluster of refugee camps in the world. According to Mahecic, the number of COVID-19 cases in the camps has increased dramatically in the last two months.

As of 31 May, there had been more than 1,188 confirmed cases among the refugee population, with more than half of these cases recorded in May alone.

None of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar has yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Mahecic added that, in many countries in the Asia Pacific region, there were not enough vaccines to go around, leading to groups such as migrant workers and asylum seekers being sidelined.

The UNHCR had observed a “worrying increase” in the number of coronavirus cases among refugees and asylum seekers in countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.

Indonesia, at least, appears to be starting to do more to address the problem.

The UNHCR says COVID-19 has begun to accelerate in the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, but no Rohingya living there have been vaccinated [File: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters]

Other parts of the country have started to follow Aceh’s lead, according to the IOM, which vaccinated more than 900 refugees in the Indonesian city of Pekanbaru in Riau Province in early June in collaboration with the local government.

“IOM applauds the response of the City Government of Pekanbaru for making vaccines available to the refugee community in the city,” Ariani Hasanah Soejoeti, the national media and communications officer of IOM Indonesia told Al Jazeera, adding that all refugees in the city over the age of 18 have now received vaccines.

“Vaccines are one of our most critical and cost-effective tools to prevent outbreaks and keep individuals and therefore entire communities safe and healthy,” she said.

“The virus knows no borders or nationality; and neither should our solidarity.”

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Why Ethiopia’s 'alphabet generation' feel betrayed by Abiy




PM Abiy Ahmed swept to power after mass protests, but his Oromo community still feel like outsiders.

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