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Israel moves ahead with thousands of settler homes despite U.S. opposition

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October 27, 2021

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel moved forward on Wednesday with plans to build some 3,000 homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, defying the Biden administration’s strongest criticism to date of such projects.

A senior Palestinian official said the decision showed that Israel’s new government, led by far-right politician Naftali Bennett, was “no less extreme” than the administration of the veteran leader he replaced, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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An Israeli defence official said a planning forum of Israel’s liaison office with the Palestinians gave preliminary approval for plans to build 1,344 housing units and its final go-ahead for projects to construct 1,800 homes.

It will be up to Defence Minister Benny Gantz, a centrist in Israel’s politically diverse government, to give the nod for construction permits to be issued, with further friction with Washington looming.

“This government is trying to balance between its good relations with the Biden administration and the various political constraints,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

The United States said on Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” about Israel’s plans to advance thousands of settlement units. It called such steps damaging to prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said it strongly opposes settlement expansion.

Asked about Wednesday’s developments, a State Department spokesperson said: “As we have said, this administration is strongly opposed to the expansion of settlements.”

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Washington desisted from such criticism when Democratic President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, was in office.

A senior U.S. State department official said Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the issue with Gantz on Tuesday. Their phone call was first reported by the Axios news website, which cited Israeli officials as saying it was a tense conversation in which the chief U.S. diplomat voiced U.S. opposition to the settlement plan.

The State Department spokesperson declined “to characterize our private discussions.”

The latest projects, as well as tenders published on Sunday https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israel-advances-plans-new-west-bank-settlement-homes-2021-10-24 for more than 1,300 settler homes, amounted to the first major test case over settlement policy with the Biden administration that took office in January.

“The behaviour of the Israeli government under Bennett is no less extreme than what it had been under Netanyahu,” Bassam Al-Salhe, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters.

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“The U.S. administration has words, and no deeds, to change the policy that had been put in place by Trump,” Salhe said.

TIGHTROPE

Walking a political and diplomatic tightrope, Bennett has been facing calls from settler leaders to step up construction. Such projects are likely to be welcomed by his ultranationalist constituents, who share his opposition to Palestinian statehood.

But along with the prospect of straining relations with Washington, Bennett could alienate left-wing and Arab parties in a coalition governing with a razor-thin parliamentary majority, if they view settlement plans as too ambitious.

Most countries regard the settlements Israel has built in territory it captured in a 1967 Middle East war as illegal.

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Israel disputes that and has settled some 440,000 Israelis in the West Bank, citing biblical, historical and political ties to the area, where 3 million Palestinians live.

Palestinians seek to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Humeyra Pamuk, Simon Lewis and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)

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Taiwan, Europe must defend democracy together, president says

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November 29, 2021

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan and Europe must work together to defend against authoritarianism and disinformation, President Tsai Ing-wen told visiting lawmakers from the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on Monday.

Lithuania has faced sustained pressure from China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, since allowing the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in its capital.

Beijing has ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei to accept Chinese sovereignty claims and to limit its international participation, though Tsai says Taiwan will not bow to threats and will defend its freedom and democracy.

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Tsai told the lawmakers at the Presidential Office that Taiwan and the Baltic nations – once part of the Soviet Union – share similar experiences of breaking free from authoritarian rule and of fighting for freedom.

“The democracy we enjoy today was hard earned. This is something we all understand most profoundly,” she said.

“Now the world faces challenges posed by the expansion of authoritarianism and threat of disinformation. Taiwan is more than willing to share its experience at combating disinformation with its European friends. We must safeguard our shared values to ensure our free and democratic way of life.”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, told Tsai in response their group was in Taipei to express their solidarity with the island.

“Lithuanian government policy towards Taiwan has wide support in our society. Preserving freedom and the rules-based international order is in the vital interests for both Taiwan and Lithuania,” he said.

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There is much opportunity for economic and cultural cooperation, added Maldeikis, whose trip has been condemned by China.

No European Union member state has official ties with Taiwan.

The United States has strongly backed its NATO ally Lithuania in its spat with China.

Lithuania faces problems too with pressure from Russia and Belarus, with migrants on its border with Belarus.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; editing by Richard Pullin)

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Australia’s reopening plans in doubt after Omicron cases

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November 29, 2021

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

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Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

“So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country’s immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia’s population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

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Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

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Earthquake hits remote northern Peru, 75 homes destroyed, no deaths reported

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November 29, 2021

By Marco Aquino

(Reuters) – A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the remote Amazon region of northern Peru on Sunday and was felt as far as Lima in the center of the country, destroying 75 homes but with no deaths reported.

The seismological center of the Geophysical Institute of Peru (IGP) said the earthquake had a depth of 131 kilometers (81 miles) and that the epicenter was 98 kilometers from the town of Santa Maria de Nieva in the province of Condorcanqui.

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The quake was felt throughout central and northern Peru. Some residents left their homes as a precaution, according to local radio and television reports.

No damage was reported to the 1,100-kilometer oil pipeline of state-owned Petroperu that crosses the Peruvian Amazon region to the Pacific coast in the north.

The National Institute of Civil Defense (Indeci) said in a statement that 220 homes were affected, 81 uninhabitable and 75 destroyed. Seven places of religious worship and two shopping centers were among damaged facilities, Indeci said, adding that four residents were injured.

President Pedro Castillo said through Twitter that he ordered the immediate deployment of support personnel and took a trip in a military plane to the area.

“We will support those affected and address material damage,” he said.

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Walter Culqui, mayor of the town of Jalca Grande in Chachapoyas province, said several houses had been damaged, leaving three non-serious injuries. Part of the church tower in the area collapsed, he said.

Through social networks, electricity cuts were reported in several locations in jungle areas. Local TV images showed stretches of roads blocked by huge rocks and dirt that had been knocked loose.

The U.S. warning system said there was no tsunami warning after the earthquake.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino in Lima and Aakriti Bhalla in Bengaluru, writing by Hugh Bronstein, Editing by Catherine Evans and Mark Porter)

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