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Major New Zealand wildfire expected to burn for weeks | New Zealand News

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A large wildfire in New Zealand is expected to keep burning for weeks but has moved away from some inhabited areas, according to authorities, raising hopes that residents of an evacuated village will be able to soon return home.

About 3,000 inhabitants of Wakefield, just outside Nelson at the top of South Island, were ordered out on  Saturday as flames razed bushland within two kilometres of their homes.

The fire erupted early last week amid scorching conditions in the heavily forested area and by early Monday had swept through an estimated 2,300 hectares.

So far one home has been destroyed by the fire and there have been no reported deaths or injuries.

About 190 firefighters, 10 helicopters and two planes have been deployed to battle the fire.

Fire chief John Sutton said that although conditions had eased, the blaze remained unpredictable and it was too early to say it was under control.

“There’s still an enormous amount of heat there and there’s a lot of unburned areas,” he told reporters. “So although we might be turning a corner, there will be firefighters working on that fire until well into March.”

No significant rainfall is forecast in the area over the next two weeks.





About 190 firefighters have been deployed to battle the fire [Chad Sharman/New Zealand Defence Force/Handout via Reuters]

Civil Defence regional chief Roger Ball said Wakefield residents could return home as early as Monday evening but the area was still under a state of emergency.

“Returning residents need to understand and accept that they need to be prepared to evacuate again if conditions change,” he said.

He said residents of valleys outside the village, which are much closer to the fire front, would have to remain in emergency accommodation until further notice.

The main fire is believed to have been accidentally started by farm equipment, although there have also been two minor blazes which police said were deliberately lit.

Australia and New Zealand have been experiencing a hot Southern Hemisphere summer.

Australia sweltered through its hottest month on record in January and there have been wildfires razing the south and flooding in the tropical north. New Zealand’s weather has not been as extreme, although it did experience a heatwave over the last few days of January.



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Israeli ‘centrism’ and what it means for Palestinians | Israel

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With less than two months until Israel holds an election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s ruling Likud party is maintaining a strong lead in the opinion polls.

His main rival – and currently the only plausible threat to another Likud-dominated government – is former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz and his newly-formed party Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Resilience).

In his bid to be prime minister, Gantz – whose party is currently predicted to pick up around 19-24 seats in the 120-seat parliament – is branding himself as a ‘centrist’, hoping to replicate (or better) the success of similar such candidates in recent elections.

‘New centrists’

Edo Konrad, deputy editor of +972 Magazine, an independent blog, told Al Jazeera that the dominant form of Israeli centrism today is found in a group of “new centrists” who emerged in the wake of the 2011 social justice protests, including Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, “and to a certain degree Benny Gantz”.

“They are less keen on dealing with the Palestinian issue and instead want to focus on socioeconomic issues, such as the cost of living,” Konrad added.

Some observers identify a conscious effort by centrist parties and politicians “not to look ‘left’, so they de-emphasise the conflict”, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has advised five national campaigns in Israel.

Gantz is also hoping to take advantage of the “anyone but Netanyahu” sentiment among voters. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, describing Gantz’s maiden speech as a combination of “hawkish militarism…and meaningless platitudes”, pointed out that for many voters, “the one and only measure of a candidate is whether he is theoretically capable of defeating the prime minister”.

For Netanyahu’s critics, as Shalev’s Haaretz colleague Noa Landau pointed out, Gantz’s candidacy is about “a return to statesmanship…the war on corruption, defending state institutions, particularly those dealing with rule of law, defending culture and the media; separation of church and state; and of major importance, modesty and a spirit of optimism instead of foulness and aggressiveness”.





An election campaign billboard in Tel Aviv shows Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump [File: Ariel Schalit/AP]

But what could Gantz’s brand of centrism mean for Palestinians? If his first speech is anything to go by, the answer is a familiar one.

“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border,” Gantz declared. “We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state.”

Such a vision – one where Israel remains in effective control of the entirety of the occupied West Bank but without granting its Palestinian inhabitants Israeli citizenship – sounds not only similar to the status quo, but also like Netanyahu’s own proposal for a Palestinian “state-minus”.

Differences ‘meaningless for Palestinians’

Gantz’s approach to the Palestinians is also consistent with that of centrist rival Lapid. Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, told Al Jazeera that “from a Palestinian perspective”, the differences between Netanyahu and the likes of Lapid are “meaningless”.

“Lapid is a proponent of a two-state settlement, but his vision of a Palestinian state has little in common with the concept of statehood as generally understood,” Rabbani said, arguing that Lapid sees negotiations with the Palestinians as a “tactical exercise, the purpose of which is to normalise relations with the Arab states”.

Last year, Gantz told an interviewer that West Bank settlements such as the so-called Gush Etzion “bloc”, as well as Ariel, Ofra and Elkana “will remain forever“. On 11 February, Gantz visited Kfar Etzion settlement, hailing it and other colonies as “a strategic, spiritual and settlement asset”.

Gantz’s running mate, former Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has already broadcast a campaign video from a settlement, declaring “our right to settle every part of the Land of Israel”.





Gantz speaks at the official launch of his election campaign in Tel Aviv [File: Oded Balilty/AP]

It comes as no surprise to Palestinian analysts. “If there’s one thing Israeli politicians are agreed on, it is that there will be no independent sovereign Palestinian state,” Nadia Hijab, board president of al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Moreover, the settler movement is so strong that any Israeli seeking power will support it whatever noises they may make about removing settlements,” she added.

‘Permanent control’

For human rights activists in Israel, the politics of Gantz’s “centrism” is a grim reminder of what B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad called “a clear truth”: that “there is an across-the-board consensus for Israel to retain control over its Palestinian subjects in the occupied territories”.

While Gantz’s candidacy is mainly being discussed in terms of his likelihood of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, he may also bring Hosen L’Yisrael into a Likud-led coalition as a senior minister.

According to Scheindlin, such a scenario “is absolutely possible and even likely – Gantz has said as much with his code phrase that he won’t go into coalition with Netanyahu if [subtext: and only if] he is indicted”.

“A new party wants more than anything to enter government, to gain experience and hold ministerial portfolios,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s exactly what Yair Lapid did in 2013 and makes sense – such a party hopes to be the next in line if Likud ever falls, especially since Gantz is consistently polling second place.”

Konrad made reference to the 2016 talks between then-Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu over forming a unity government, but also noted how, for now, Netanyahu has indicated that he is not interested in a coalition with Gantz.

For Rabbani, a government led by someone like Gantz would pose a challenge for the Palestinians. “The West will respond as if he has no history and that his previously espoused positions were not serious statements of intent, and embrace him as the messiah and prince of peace,” he said.

“If the Palestinians decide to play along with this charade until it is exposed,” he continued, “much as they did with other Israeli leaders since the early 1990s, they will get nowhere and once again pull the short end of the stick.”

Indeed, vague remarks by Gantz that Israel does not seek to “rule over others” were greeted by an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with cautious optimism.

“Any attempt by the Palestinian ‘leadership’ to read positive signals on Israeli lips is yet another sign of their bankruptcy,” Hijab told Al Jazeera, “and their powerlessness to achieve their stated goal of an independent Palestinian state.”



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Dutch Palestinians remain disappointed after birthplace ruling | News

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The man whose case led to the Netherlands recognising the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces, said he is still dissatisfied because the new ruling avoids the word Palestine and therefore fails to acknowledge his identity.

Emiel de Bruijne, who was born in East Jerusalem in 1992 and has Dutch citizenship, sued the Netherlands and took his case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seeking his right to register as Palestinian-born, instead of Israeli.

On February 9, in a widely celebrated move, the Dutch government announced it would begin to recognise the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as official birthplaces for Palestinians born in the country from May 15, 1948, onwards, after the establishment of Israel when the British Mandate officially ended.

“This decision means that we are no longer registered as being born in Israel. That is a step in the right direction but by avoiding the word Palestine, our identity is still denied,” De Bruijne told Al Jazeera.






Israel opens ‘apartheid road’ in occupied West Bank

In the ruling, published by the Dutch Interior Ministry, a footnote maintains the development “is also in agreement with the Dutch position that Israel has no sovereignty over these territories and its position on the non-recognition of the ‘State of Palestine’.”

Raymond Knops, Interior Ministry state secretary, said the new category reflects the Oslo Peace Accords terms signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1990s, and later the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

De Bruijne, the son of a Dutch father and Palestinian mother, moved with his family to the Netherlands when he was nine.

He has been trying to change his registration since 2010 to secure his “right to Palestinian identity”.

“Identity is very important to Palestinians. The administrative aspect is, therefore, a key issue. It says something about how we are seen as Palestinians,” he said, adding that he will not be happy until the words “Palestinian Territories” are added to the Dutch civil registry.

“The term is internationally accepted, and various Dutch government websites already use it,” he said.

De Bruijne lost his appeal in 2018 to the Council of State – which advises the Dutch government and serves as a top administrative court – but the Council nonetheless advised the Interior Ministry to amend the registration.

In spite of repeated requests, the registration was not changed, so De Bruijne decided to file the case at the ECHR.

Despite the recent announcement, De Bruijne’s lawyer Tom de Boer told Al Jazeera that he would continue to pursue the case at the ECHR.

Other Dutch Palestinians were also left disappointed.

Ghada Zeidan, De Bruijne’s mother, chairs Palestine Link, an organisation that promotes Palestinian interests in the Netherlands.





Palestinians have fought a decades-long battle for self-determination and recognition [Darren Whiteside/Reuters]

“In our opinion, it’s a bureaucratic solution, completely decoupled from the human interest of the issue. It feels like the Netherlands is setting aside our Palestinian identity,” she said.

She noted that the Netherlands includes other non-recognised areas in the civil registry, such as Western Sahara, Taiwan and the Panama Canal Zone.

Previously, as well as Israel, “unknown” was an option as a birthplace – it was added in 2014 after Palestinians protested against putting “Israel” down.

Dutch activist Ibrahim al-Baz is one of 5,000 Palestinians in Vlaardingen, a city near Rotterdam with the largest Palestinian community.

“My Palestinian nationality means everything to me. It’s my right to self-determination which is now denied,” said al-Baz, a first-generation Palestinian who arrived in the sixties.

More than 130 countries including Bulgaria, India and Nigeria, and the UN General Assembly, recognise Palestine as a sovereign state, but most European Union members do not.

Marcel Brus, professor of public international law at the University of Groningen, said that the Palestinian nationality is still being denied but called the decision to recognise the birthplaces as an “acceptable solution”.

“Although the declaration of the State of Palestine took place in 1989, its recognition as a state according to international law at that time was very controversial. Therefore, I believe that recognising Gaza and the occupied West Bank as birthplace for people born around that time or before it is an acceptable compromise,” he told Al Jazeera.

However, Brus said the recognition of the State of Palestine has advanced since, and that it would be reasonable to give children who are born now the choice to opt for “Palestinian Territories” or “Palestine” as their place of birth.



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Macron condemns anti-Semitic abuse at ‘yellow vest’ protest | News

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French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned anti-Semitic abuse directed towards a prominent intellectual by “yellow vest” protesters on Saturday.

“These abuses are the absolute negation of what makes France a great nation. We won’t tolerate them”, Macron said on Twitter.

Alain Finkielkraut was walking on the fringes of a demonstration in central Paris on Saturday when a group of “yellow vests” started insulted him with offensive remarks such as “dirty Zionist” and “France is ours” according to a video broadcast by Yahoo News.

“I felt absolute hatred and, unfortunately, this is not the first time,” the French writer and philosopher told the Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. He expressed relief that police intervened.

Finkielkraut has expressed his solidarity and sympathy with the “yellow vest” protesters from the outset but in an interview published Saturday in Le Figaro, he criticised the leaders of the movement, saying “arrogance has changed sides”. 

Saturday’s incident triggered a wave of condemnation and messages of support for the philosopher. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said it was “simply intolerable” while the leader of the Republican opposition party, Laurent Wauquiez, denounced the “abject idiots.”

Ian Brossat, chief French Communist Party candidate for the European Parliament, said “We can hate Finkielkraut’s ideas”, but “nothing can justify attacking him as a Jew”. 

Finkielkraut, who is seen as having pro-establishment beliefs, has since January 2016 been a member of the French Academy, the prestigious institution in charge of defining the French language.

Rising anti-semitism in France 

Sebastien Lecornu, the junior foreign minister, pointed the finger at “yellow vest” protesters for the latest offences.

The “yellow vest” protests began three months ago over fuel taxes but quickly grew into a broader anti-government rebellion fuelled by anger at Macron, with some using anti-Semitic tropes to refer to his former job as an investment banker.

“Conspiracy theorists are very present among their ranks,” Lecornu said, before referring to a survey released on Monday.

The Ifop poll said nearly half of the “yellow vests” believed in a worldwide “Zionist plot”, as well as the “Great Replacement” theory, which posits that immigration is being organised deliberately “to replace Europe’s native populations”.

But the rise in anti-Semitic acts in France predates the “yellow vest” demonstrations. A recent spate of anti-Semitic vandalism and graffiti in and around Paris has stoked fresh concerns about an increase in hate crimes against Jews. 

Fourteen political parties on Thursday launched a call for action against anti-Semitism after the interior ministry reported a 74 percent increase in anti-Jewish acts last year.

During the latest episodes, the memorial for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man who was kidnapped and killed in 2006, was desecrated when a tree planted in his memory was chopped down.

In addition, mailboxes decorated with portraits of the late Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and a European Parliament president who died in 2017, were daubed with swastikas.

The ‘yellow vest’ movement 

The “yellow vests” were protesting for the 14th consecutive Saturday, but according to French media quoting the interior minister, the number of people protesting across the country has decreased.

Around 41,500 protesters nationwide turned out Saturday, some 10,000 less than the previous week, with 5,000 in Paris.

In the capital, tensions mounted as the more than four-hour march ended at Les Invalides, with projectiles thrown at police, some by masked individuals dressed in black, a uniform for the ultra-leftist Black blocs.

Lines of riot police used tear gas and an impressive backup, a special horse brigade and water cannon – apparently not used – to force the agitated crowd to disperse.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said 15 people were detained for questioning, far fewer than the scores detained in earlier, larger demonstrations that degenerated into scattered rioting and destruction.

However, the increasingly divided movement is having trouble maintaining momentum and support from the public that initially massively backed protesters, polls showed.



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