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Masks now mandatory inside middle and high schools in B.C.

Masks are now mandatory for students and staff inside high schools and middle schools in British Columbia.

Non-medical grade masks must be worn in all indoor areas, the province announced Thursday, including while students are in their learning cohorts.

A statement from the B.C. Ministry of Education said masks can come off while students are at their workstation in the classroom, while they’re eating and drinking, or while a barrier — like a sheet of Plexiglas — is in place.

Wearing masks indoors is still optional for elementary students. Staff in elementary schools, however, are now also required to wear a mask.

$ 900K for rapid response teams

The province also announced the creation of six regional rapid response teams — one in each health authority — to support independent schools.

The teams, created with $ 900,000 in funding, “will continue to improve the speed of school exposure investigations so health authorities can inform school districts and families more quickly.”

The teams will conduct physical and virtual inspections to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently in K-12 schools.

If there is a serious exposure or in-school transmission, the teams will be sent out to conduct a review and make recommendations to prevent the situation from happening again.

Calls for more safety measures

Parents and teachers have repeatedly called for a number of mandates to help keep schools safer, such as mandatory masks and rapid testing, since in-person classes resumed last September.

Results released Wednesday of a survey commissioned by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation suggested more than half of teachers felt unsafe in the classroom during the pandemic and the vast majority wanted to see masks become mandatory.

The poll of 4,186 teachers found 57.8 per cent did not feel safe during in-person instruction and 86.9 wanted to see all adults wearing face masks or shields. A slightly smaller portion — 79.9 per cent — said students should wear masks as well. 

The push increased this week after news of possible exposure to a new coronavirus variant at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge, B.C.

Officials confirmed Wednesday someone at the school was infected with a more transmissible form of the virus, but has since recovered. A total of 81 students and eight staff members who are in that person’s cohort were all tested to see if the virus had spread, and all of them tested negative.

Students are pictured on a school bus after classes end at Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 4. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Over the fall, Henry has said data shows transmission of COVID-19 is generally low in schools

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, 2,868 children under the age of 10 in B.C. have tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday — about four per cent of all cases in the province.

Current guidelines for schools are different than those for the rest of the public. Masks are recommended but not mandatory, and the rule for physical distancing is one metre apart instead of two.

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CBC | Health News

How France found itself in the middle of a coronavirus catastrophe

Emmanuel Macron opened his official visit to Italy on Feb. 26 with a big two-cheek kiss for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Then he was off for a 20-minute round of handshaking in the streets of Naples, even though the Italian coronavirus outbreak was already big news there. 

In Paris on March 9, the day neighbouring Italy was locked down, Macron went strolling with his wife on the Champs-Élysées, telling restaurant patrons he wanted to “send a message of confidence to the French economy.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a great idea. France is now among the worst-performing countries in handling the outbreak. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte came in close contact twice during their summit in Naples in late February, when the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding. Macron also embarked on a round of hand-shaking on the city’s streets. (The Associated Press)

“In France, the French president is like a king. He’s a republican king,” says Mathieu Magnaudeix, one of France’s top investigative journalists. “It’s very clear they didn’t grasp how important the situation was. It’s a failure of the whole system. It’s a failure of French executive power and especially the president.”

Occasionally, the president was challenged. On a Feb. 28 visit to a French hospital, he was confronted by a doctor about how public hospitals were effectively on fire like the famous Notre Dame Cathedral and needed his immediate attention.

Macron pushed back, saying, “OK, so I can count on you?” The doctor quickly responded, “Oh yes, you can count on me, but the opposite still needs to be proven.”

Before long, France was embroiled in a full-scale heath crisis, with so many cases of COVID-19 that hospitals and some seniors’ care homes were overwhelmed with patients. (MARTIN BUREAU/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a lot of anger directed at the French government right now, Magnaudeix says.

“We basically lost two months or three months, three very important months, where we could have helped prevent this pandemic from getting bigger and bigger in France,” he said. “After all of that is over, the government will have to be accountable for what they’ve done or not done.”

It wasn’t all the government’s fault. On March 12, Macron finally went on TV to announce he was closing schools and calling for physical distancing because France was now at war with COVID-19.

The very next day, the public flooded into Parisian terraces and courtyards to enjoy the sunshine with their friends and relatives. Many people seemed to pay no attention to the possibility that France could share Italy’s horrible fate. 

Mathieu Magnaudeix, an investigative journalist with French online publication Mediapart, says France’s response to the pandemic is ‘a failure of the whole system.’ (Mathieu Magnaudeix)

“We had the example of Wuhan under our eyes and then we had the example of Italy under our eyes,” says Dr. Catherine Hill, a leading French epidemiologist. 

“Instead of thinking that those were examples, people just hoped for the best and they talked about the Italian scenario as if it was a Western movie made by Italians or something exotic. It’s ridiculous! The same causes tend to have the same consequences.” 

Intensive care units overwhelmed

Eric Maury, an intensive care physician at Hôpital Saint-Antoine in Paris, said there are thousands more intensive care patients in France than its health-care system can handle. (Eric Maury)

Sure enough, the consequences have arrived. A tidal wave of COVID-19 patients is overwhelming France’s hospitals.

Intensive care doctor Eric Maury estimates there are 5,000 ICU beds in France.

“Actually there are more than 7,000 patients requiring ICU, so we have actually more patients than France can treat in ICU beds,” he said.

On Sunday, the death toll topped 14,000.

France has responded to the shortage with an amazing mobilization of high-speed trains and aircraft to move patients from saturated hospitals in Paris and the eastern portion of the country to less busy hospitals in other regions, and even other countries. 

“They sent patients to Germany, to Switzerland, to Luxembourg because [the system] was overwhelmed,” Maury said. “There were too many patients to take care of and there were no more ICU beds, no ventilators.”

The comparisons to other countries are astonishing. While France is reputed to have one of the best health care systems in the world, neighbouring Germany performed five times the per-capita number of COVID-19 tests. Now France has six times the per-capita number of German deaths from the disease.

A woman carries some shopping home in Marseille, in southern France, just after nationwide confinement measures came into effect on March 17. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

France claims to have a suspiciously low number of confirmed cases, but epidemiologists like Hill don’t believe it.

“My estimate is that you have to multiply the published figures by something like 50, so there’s an enormous gap,” she said.

WATCH | COVID-19 catastrophe in France:

The overconfidence shown by French President Emmanuel Macron as neighbouring Italy went into lockdown to contain COVID-19 was followed by a lack of regard for physical distancing recommendations and has resulted in the most lethal outbreak in the world.   6:05

There was a scandal in France when it turned out that a much-discussed stockpile of masks and other protective equipment was far smaller than promised. Macron toured a mask production line and promised more were on the way.

Intensive care physicians like Maury say there is no sign of relief yet.

“What I am telling the government is if there is no protection, we are not going to take care of patients,” he said. “It’s not possible to do that.” 

Return to normal?

Even as France is flying patients to other countries, the government is announcing plans to return to normal.

Experts like Hill doubt that’s possible without a large increase in testing. 

“Half of the contaminations are caused by individuals who do not know they are infectious,” she said. “There are millions of people in France who are positive right now. How do you release the quarantine? You really have to start testing massively to sort out the people who are contagious and bring them aside.”

And like Canada, France has a shockingly high proportion of deaths in nursing homes. 

A man runs on the forecourt of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur on top Montmartre hill during a nationwide confinement to counter the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

It’s something Macron did not seem to see coming back on March 6, when he joined the dinner table at a Paris seniors’ residence and didn’t pay attention to physical distancing.

Today, the number of seniors who have died of COVID-19 in France is roughly 5,000. The deaths in seniors’ homes are perhaps the most shocking element of France’s lamentable coronavirus record.

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CBC | World News

Shia militias now a greater threat than ISIS in the Middle East, says Canadian commander

Iranian-backed Shia militias embedded alongside Iraqi security forces are now a bigger threat than the fragmented fighting power of former Islamic State extremists, a senior Canadian military commander told a House of Commons committee today.

Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau delivered the assessment while updating the all-party House of Commons defence committee on recent events and threats in the Middle East.

He said out of the roughly 70,000 Shia militia members under arms in Iraq, about 30,000 of them are hardcore fighters affiliated with Iran who could pose a danger.

“They are a very big concern,” Rouleau tesfied. “In fact, they’re my No. 1 concern. At the moment, relative to force protection, I am more concerned about that swath of Shiite militia groups than I necessarily am about Daesh (the Arabic term for ISIS) because Daesh has been defeated militarily.”

The remnant of the ISIS units hiding out in remote regions of northern Iraq and Syria, he said, “are reorganizing and spending time on themselves, more than they are spending time on attack planning.”

Over the last two weeks, CBC News has spoken to several senior Canadian and anti-ISIS coalition commanders who share Rouleau’s assessment and note that the militias have “yet to extract their pound of flesh” for the targeted killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the secretive Quds Forces, by the U.S. in early January.

Iranian mourners gather during the final stage of funeral processions for slain top general Qasem Soleimani in his hometown Kerman on January 7, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The Iranians fired ballistic missiles into two Iraqi bases used by coalition forces, including Canadians, but have thus far taken no further retaliatory action.

The militias became highly integrated with Iraqi forces during the battles to expel ISIS from the northern part of the country, including the prolonged fight for Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.

“These Shiite militia groups we’re concerned about are very well equipped,” Rouleau told MPs. “They have tubed artillery. They have multiple launch rocket systems and armed UAVs. They have air defence equipment.” 

Rather than being a ragtag force, the fighters are like armed as though they are “a state military,” he said.

Canada, with roughly 500 troops in Iraq alongside the U.S.-led coalition, is keeping a close intelligence eye on the various groups to determine what their intentions might be.

“They have been muted since the attack and the U.S. threats that — if a U.S. or coalition service member dies at the hands of these group — there will be an outsized response,” said Rouleau, who is responsible for all military operations, foreign and domestic.

Ongoing crises in Iran, including the COVID-19 outbreak and the fallout from punishing economic sanctions, are also helping to mitigate any possible retaliation, he added.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said he wondered how much support there was for the Shia militias within the Iraqi government itself.

Sandra McCardell, director general of the Middle East Bureau at Global Affairs Canada, told the committee that Iraq, prior to the Soleimani killing, had been engulfed in anti-Iranian, anti-corruption protests.

“They were frustrated and resentful of the foreign influence in their country,” she testified. “I think what we’ve seen more recently, particularly since the killing of Qasem Soleimani, is that there has been pressure to again return to sectarian camps.”

After the 2003 U.S.invasion, Iraq descended into a sectarian bloodbath between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

“How we’ll go from here remains to be seen,” McCardell said.

Rouleau said that in the aftermath of the Iranian missile attack on Erbil, where Canadian special forces have conducted operations out of since 2014, consideration is being given to consolidating Canadian bases in Iraq.

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CBC | World News

Europe, Middle East scramble to limit spread of coronavirus

The latest:

  • WHO chief says the coronavirus has “pandemic potential,” but for now there is no “uncontained global spread.”
  • Iran’s health minister says 12 have died of COVID-19, but lawmaker in Qom cites much higher number, saying there have been 50 deaths.
  • Italian news agency reports at least 229 confirmed cases and 7 deaths.
  • South Korean health workers plan to test everyone in Daegu with cold-like symptoms — about 28,000 people.
  • China’s national health commission says the coronavirus has infected more than 77,600 people and killed more than 2,600 — most in Hubei. 
  • Read why some experts are questioning China’s coronavirus claims.

The coronvarius took aim at a broadening swath of the globe Monday, with officials in Europe and the Middle East scrambling to limit the spread of an outbreak that showed signs of stabilizing at its Chinese epicentre but posed new threats far beyond.

In Italy, authorities set up roadblocks, called off soccer matches and shuttered sites including the famed La Scala opera house. In Iran, the government said 12 people had died nationwide, while five neighbouring countries — Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan — reported their first cases of the virus, with all those infected having links to Iran.

Across the world, stock markets and futures tumbled on fears of a global economic slowdown due to the expanding spread of the virus. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank more than 1,000 points, its biggest decline in two years.

The number of people sickened by COVID-19 topped 79,000 globally, and wherever it sprung up, officials rushed to try to contain it.

“The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus can spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption,” said the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, yes,” Tedros said, but “for the moment we’re not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus.”

“I have spoken consistently about the need for facts not fear. Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts but it may certainly cause fear,” Tedros said, speaking in Geneva.

He said a WHO expert team currently in China believes the virus plateaued there between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has declined since. The team also said the fatality rate in China was between two and four per cent in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and 0.7 per cent outside of Wuhan.

Clusters of the virus continued to emerge outside China, including in Qom, an Iranian city where the country’s semiofficial ILNA news agency cited a lawmaker as reporting a staggering 50 people had died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The country’s Health Ministry rejected that, insisting the death toll remained at 12, with total infections numbering 61.

People wearing protective masks shop at a pharmacy in the Iranian capital Tehran on Monday. Iran has been scrambling to contain the coronavirus outbreak since it announced the first two deaths in the city of Qom last week. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

The conflicting reports raised questions about the Iranian government’s transparency concerning the scale of the outbreak. But even with the lower toll of 12, the number of deaths compared to the number of confirmed infections from the virus is higher in Iran than in any other country, including China and South Korea, where the outbreak is far more widespread.

Asked about the spike in cases in Iran, WHO’s emergencies program director, Michael Ryan, cautioned that in the first wave of infections reported from a country, only the deaths may be being picked up and therefore be over-represented. “The virus may have been there for longer than we had previously suspected,” he said.

Ryan said a WHO team would be arriving in Iran on Tuesday and in Italy on Monday.

“What we don’t understand yet in COVID-19 are the absolute transmission dynamics,” Ryan said, noting that in China there’s been a significant drop in cases. “That goes against the logic of pandemic.”

Tourists wearing protective masks visit the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, on Sunday during the usual period of the Carnival festivities, which were cancelled for the last two days due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in northern Italy. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities in Iran closed schools across much of the country for a second day Monday. Movie theatres and other venues were shuttered through at least Friday, and daily sanitizing of public buses and the Tehran metro, which is used by some three million people, was begun.

Recognition grew that the virus was no longer stemming only from contact with infected people in China.

“Many different countries around the world may be sources of COVID-19 infections,” said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. “This makes it much harder for any one country to detect and contain.”

China still has the vast majority of cases, but as it records lower levels of new infections, attention has shifted to new fronts in the outbreak. Chief among them is South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in placed the country under a red alert, the highest level, allowing for “unprecedented, powerful steps” to stem the crisis.

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a National Assembly on Monday in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Beyond expanding a delay to the start of the school year from the hardest-hit area of Daegu nationwide, though, it remains to be seen how far the government will go. A Chinese-style lockdown of Daegu — a city of 2.5 million people that is the country’s fourth largest — appeared unlikely, even as signs of the response to a broadening problem could be seen nearly everywhere in the nation.

More than 600 police officers in Daegu fanned out in search of hundreds of members of a church that has been identified as a source for hundreds of infections. The country’s National Assembly was temporarily closed Monday as workers sterilized its halls. At shops and food stalls in the capital of Seoul, a misty fog surrounded crews in protective suits who sprayed disinfectants.

“The changes have been dramatic,” said Daegu resident Nah Young-jo, who described an increasingly empty city of few passersby and closed restaurants.

South Korean officials recommended that courts consider postponing trials of cases not deemed urgent, while Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul threatened tough penalties for those who defy a ban on rallies in major downtown areas. Work schedules for city employees in Seoul were staggered to reduce crowding on subways, where packed cars could become petri dishes if an infected passenger were aboard.

People in traditional Korean hanbok dresses wear face masks as they visit Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul on Sunday. (AFP via Getty Images)

“If we fail to effectively prevent the spread of the virus into the local communities, there would be a large possibility [that the illness] spreads nationwide,” warned Kim Gang-lip, South Korea’s vice-minister of health.

Health workers said they planned to test every citizen in Daegu who showed cold-like symptoms, estimating around 28,000 people would be targeted.

In Italy, where 229 people have tested positive for the virus and seven have died, police manned checkpoints around a dozen quarantined northern towns as worries grew across the continent.

Austria temporarily halted rail traffic across its border with Italy. Slovenia and Croatia, popular getaways for Italians, were holding crisis meetings. Schools were closed, theatre performances were cancelled and even Carnival celebrations in Venice were called off.

Tourists wearing protective facemasks visit the Piazza San Marco in Venice on Monday. (Andrea Pattaro/AFP via Getty Images)

It was a sign of how quickly circumstances could change in the widening COVID-19 scare. Italy had imposed more stringent measures than other European countries after the outbreak began, barring flights beginning Jan. 31 to and from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Until last week, Italy had reported just three cases of infection.

“These rapid developments over the weekend have shown how quickly this situation can change,” the health commissioner for the European Union, Stella Kyriakides, said in Brussels. “We need to take this situation of course very seriously, but we must not give in to panic, and, even more importantly, to disinformation.”

Mainland China reported 508 new cases of the illness on Tuesday, raising its total to 77,658. It also announced 71 new deaths for a total of 2,663.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian expert who was part of the initial team deployed to China, is scheduled to provide more detail about the team’s finding during a news conference Tuesday.

WATCH: Infectious disease expert talks about efforts to contain coronavirus

Infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Daszak says coronavirus is ‘more or less’ a pandemic right now.  9:30

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CBC | World News

Palestinians angrily reject Trump’s Middle East peace plan

U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Middle East peace plan Tuesday, calling for the creation of a State of Palestine with its capital in portions of east Jerusalem, saying it is a “win-win” opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians.

It was soundly rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who dismissed it as nonsense. 

“We will not kneel and we will not surrender,” Abbas said, adding that the Palestinians would resist the plan through “peaceful, popular means.”

The plan ends speculation over whether Trump’s administration, in preparing a proposal without input from Palestinian leaders, would abandon a “two-state resolution” to the conflict.

Trump, releasing the plan before a pro-Israel audience at the White House with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his side, acknowledged that he has done a lot for Israel, but he said he wanted the deal to be a “great deal for the Palestinians.” Trump said the deal is a “historic opportunity” for Palestinians to achieve an independent state of their own.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Netanyahu called the plan ‘remarkable.’ (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Trump said Jerusalem would remain the “undivided” capital of Israel, with Netanyahu later remarking that the plan envisions the Palestinian capital being located in Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The plan more than doubles the territory currently under Palestinian control, although it also recognizes Israeli sovereignty over major settlement blocs in the West Bank, something to which the Palestinians will almost certainly object.

Netanyahu’s spokesperson said two hours later that the Israeli leader will ask his cabinet on Sunday to approve his plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett called for the immediate annexation of all Israeli settlements in the West Bank in response to the Trump peace plan.

Bennett, a hawkish member of the religious nationalist Yemina party, said the proposal offers Israel “an opportunity to determine the territory of our country” and “include all the Israeli settlements in the land of Israel within the sovereign state of Israel.”

He said that Israel “cannot wait until after the elections, and won’t be satisfied with partial sovereignty — take it all now.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, third from left, soundly rejected Trump’s peace plan, calling nonsense. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)

At a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where his Palestinian Authority is headquartered, Abbas said “a thousand no’s” to the plan.

“After the nonsense that we heard today we say a thousand no’s to the ‘deal of the century,'” Abbas said — borrowing Trump’s description of the plan.

He said the Palestinians remain committed to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a state with its capital in east Jerusalem.

‘A cycle of terrorism’

Trump said the Palestinians “deserve a chance to achieve their extraordinary potential.”

“Palestinians have been trapped in a cycle of terrorism, poverty and violence, exploited by those seeking to use them as pawns to advance terrorism and extremism.”

The plan calls for a four-year freeze in new Israeli settlement construction, during which time details of a comprehensive agreement would be negotiated. However, it was not immediately clear if the freeze could be extended if a final deal is not concluded in the four years.

Trump said he sent a letter to Abbas to tell him that the territory that the plan has set aside for a new Palestinian state will remain open and undeveloped for four years.

“It’s going to work,” Trump said. “If they do this, it will work. Your response to this historic opportunity will show the world to what extent you are ready to lead the Palestinian people to statehood.”

Netanyahu was effusive in his praise of the plan.

“You have been the greatest friends Israel has ever had in the White House,” he told Trump, adding “it’s not even close.”

Netanyahu said previous efforts by American officials to broker peace in the region “did not strike right balance between Israel’s national security and interests and Palestinian aspiration of self-determination.”

Netanyahu praised the efforts of White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, but at least one Democratic senator criticized Kushner for abandoning traditional U.S. policy in the region. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

The 50-page political outline goes further in concessions to the Palestinians than many analysts had believed was likely. However, it would require them to accept conditions they have been previously unwilling to consider, such as accepting West Bank settlements. It builds on a 30-page economic plan for the West Bank and Gaza that was unveiled last June and which the Palestinians have also rejected.

Under the terms of the “peace vision” that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working on for nearly three years, the future Palestinian state would consist of the West Bank and Gaza, connected by a combination of above-ground roads and tunnels, according to the officials.

Netanyahu praised Kushner’s “resolve” in helping craft the plan. Both Netanyahu and his main political challenger in March elections, Benny Gantz, had signed off on the plan. 

The event comes as Trump’s impeachment trial continues in the U.S. Senate and Netanyahu facing criminal corruption charges.  

In the run-up to the March 2 election, Netanyahu has called for annexing parts of the West Bank and imposing Israeli sovereignty on all its settlements there. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Jordan Valley in particular is considered a vital security asset.

Timing of announcement

“You, Mr. President, recognize that Israel must have sovereignty in the Jordan Valley,” said Netanyahu.

Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration State Department official on Middle East policy, told CBC News on Tuesday it’s easy to be cynical about the timing of the announcement, given the domestic troubles swirling around both Trump and Netanyahu.

“There’s no reason this plan couldn’t be put out … after the next Israeli election, or a month ago,” said Goldenberg. “Why it’s happening this week, after three years, is incredibly questionable.

“The obvious reason is it’s a tool for distraction.”

A general view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Michmash, seen last week. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been flirting with plans to annex the Jordan Valley as well as Jewish settlements across the West Bank, a move popular with his nationalist base but one long warned could set off renewed Palestinian violence. (Oded Balilty/The Associated Press)

Security responsibility for the Jordan Valley in the proposal would remain in Israel’s hands for the foreseeable future but could be scaled back as the nascent Palestinian state builds its capacity, under the terms of the plan, which says that statehood will be contingent on the Palestinians meeting international governance criteria.

U.S. officials had said they expected negative responses from the Palestinians, as well as Turkey and Iran, but were hopeful that Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have peace treaties with Israel, would not reject it outright. The officials said they expected Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others to cautiously welcome the plan.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, backed by Iran, called on Arab states to not be complicit in a “deal of shame” that would “rob the Palestinian people of the right to their land.”

Jordan meanwhile warned against any Israeli “annexation of Palestinian lands” and reaffirmed its commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, which would include all the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi warned of “the dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures, such as annexation of Palestinian lands.”

Egypt urged Israelis and Palestinians to “carefully study” the plan and said it appreciates the administration’s efforts.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday that it favours a solution that restores all the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people through establishing an “independent and sovereign state on the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have made peace with Israel.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut was quick to weigh in on the proposal in a multi-post Twitter thread, calling it “a total abandonment of decades of U.S. Middle East policy” that “risks real violence and massive destabilization inside places like Jordan.”

Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iran’s president, said on social media: “This is a deal between the Zionist regime [Israel] and America. Interaction with Palestinians is not on its agenda.”

“This is not a peace plan but a plan of imposition and sanctions,” she continued.

The Palestinians seek the West Bank and East Jerusalem as parts of an independent Palestinian state.

Settlement activity

The international community considers both territories to be occupied and all settlements illegal. But the Trump administration, in a break from its predecessors and the rest of the world, has taken a much friendlier approach and in November declared it does not consider settlements illegal.

Liberal Israeli group Peace Now called the plan “as detached from reality as it is eye-catching” and said it will not bring stability to the region.

“The plan’s green light for Israel to annex isolated settlements in exchange for a perforated Palestinian state is unviable and would not bring stability,” the organization said in a statement issued after the president’s announcement.

Trump has reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by siding more blatantly with Israel. Prior to the statement on settlements, the administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pushed ahead to move the U.S. Embassy there. He’s also closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and cut funding to Palestinian aid programs.

The policies have proven popular among Trump’s evangelical and pro-Israel supporters.

The Palestinians have refused to even speak to Trump for many months, saying he’s biased in favour of Israel, and they are calling on Arab representatives to reject the Tuesday event at the White House.

“Diplomacy requires actually really hearing both sides and understanding precisely what they want, what their needs are and trying to come up with solutions that work for both sides,” said Goldenberg, who now works with the think-thank Center for a New American Security.

“That is literally impossible to do when you’re not having conversations with one side.”

‘Palestine is not for sale’

Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza City ahead of the announcement.

The protesters burned pictures of Trump and Netanyahu, and raised a banner reading “Palestine is not for sale.”

Palestinian demonstrators burn a poster depicting Trump and Israeli Netanyahu during a protest against the U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Rafah in southern Gaza. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

During the rally, Gaza’s Hamas rulers expressed rare support for Abbas of the rival Fatah movement, welcoming his call for a broad meeting of Palestinian factions.

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007. Several attempts to reconcile the two factions have failed, which many say has weakened the Palestinian cause.

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CBC | World News

Where Canadian military and police missions are in the Middle East right now

Experts are warning that Iran might retaliate violently after the United States killed its military leader Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad. Here’s a list of Canadian deployments in the Middle East, according to the Department of National Defence:

1. Operation Impact

Up to 850 people serve on Operation Impact. Deployed to multiple locations in Iraq, Canadian military members are training and advising Iraqi security forces to improve their ability to fight the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On November 26, 2019, Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan officially assumed command of the NATO mission in Iraq from Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.

Besides training, Operation Impact members work on air transportation and intelligence.

2. Operation Calumet

55 people serve on Operation Calumet. Based in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, this is a long-term mission to keep peace between Egypt and Israel. Canada provides support to observer helicopters and airplanes and has a handful of senior military police assigned to keep order and discipline among the multinational force.

3. Operation Foundation

About 16 members serve on Operation Foundation. Staff officers are assigned to several headquarters overseeing military missions in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, including U.S. forces in Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.

4. Operation Artemis

Seven members serve on Operation Artemis. It’s part of a naval effort currently led by Australia to patrol waters off the Middle East, interdicting smugglers, pirates and militants targeting shipping. Canada’s contribution to Operation Artemis ebbs and flows and sometimes includes multiple navy ships and air components; as of last November, it consisted of seven people based on land in Bahrain.

5. Operation Jade

Four officers serve on Operation Jade — military observers assigned to a UN mission with groups in Lebanon and the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. This was the United Nations’ first peacekeeping mission, beginning in 1948.

6. Police officers

According to the RCMP, three Canadian police officers are also serving in Iraq, training Iraqi officers and helping build leadership capacity.

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Trump aides ignored warnings on Middle East nuclear power plan, report says

Top White House aides ignored repeated warnings they could be breaking the law as they worked with former U.S. officials and a close friend of President Donald Trump to advance a multibillion-dollar plan to build nuclear reactors in the Middle East, Democratic lawmakers alleged in a report released Tuesday.

The House of Representatives oversight committee report said former national security adviser Michael Flynn and two aides promoted the plan with Tom Barrack, chairman of Trump's inaugural committee, and a consortium of U.S. firms led by retired military commanders and former White House officials.

The effort, the report said, began before Trump took office and continued after his inauguration in January 2017 despite National Security Council staff warnings that a proposed transfer of U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia was being fast-tracked around a mandatory approval process in possible breach of the Atomic Energy Act.

John Eisenberg, the top NSC lawyer, had ordered the work halted because of concerns that Flynn could be breaking a conflict of interest law as he advised the consortium while serving on Trump's campaign and transition team, said the report, which is based on documents and whistleblower accounts.

Administration support for the project, however, appears to have continued to the present, with Trump meeting consortium representatives in the Oval Office last week, the committee report said.

"The committee is now launching an investigation to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump administration are in the national security interests of the United States, or rather, serve those who stand to gain financially," the report said.

The report, compiled by the Democratic staff of the panel chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, comes as Democrats expand inquiries into alleged administration wrongdoing after winning a majority in the House in November elections.

The nuclear project is being promoted by IP3 International, a consortium of U.S. technology firms founded by retired navy rear admiral Michael Hewitt, retired army general John Keane and Robert McFarlane, a former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan. The board includes former senior U.S. civilian and military officials.

The report said the companies include reactor manufacturer Westinghouse, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year.

The White House, Flynn and IP3 had no immediate response to the report.

Dozens of reactors planned

Working with the U.S. government, the consortium would build dozens of power reactors in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other U.S. Arab allies, according to the IP3 website. In doing so, the project would help restore U.S. influence in the Middle East while boosting regional economic and political stability, according to the website.

Flynn, a retired army general, promoted the plan on two 2015 trips to Saudi Arabia, and listed himself on government documents as an IP3 adviser during a period in 2016 while he was working for Trump's campaign and transition, the report said.

Tom Barrack, the chairman of Trump's inaugural committee, was also a key figure involved in promoting the plan, authoring a report titled 'The Trump Middle East Marshall Plan.' (Associated Press)

He is co-operating with special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Flynn was an early target of the investigation and is awaiting sentencing for lying to FBI agents.

Barrack was represented in the plan, the report said, by the then head of his firm's Washington office, Rick Gates, a former political consultant and Trump's deputy campaign manager. Gates pleaded guilty last year to financial fraud and lying to the FBI and also is now cooperating with Mueller.

Documents appended to the report included a draft presidential memorandum appointing Barrack as a special envoy to oversee implementation of the project that McFarlane sent to Flynn and his then-deputy, K.T. McFarland, on Jan. 28, 2017.

Also included with the committee's report was a document authored by Barrack titled "The Trump Middle East Marshall Plan" that promoted the plan and was sent to NSC staff on March 28, 2017, by IP3 board member Frances Fragos Townsend, who served as Homeland Security adviser to former president George W. Bush.

Top ethics advisers ignored

A current senior administration official was among the unnamed whistleblowers who came forward "with significant concerns about the potential procedural and legal violations connected with rushing through a plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia," the report said.

The whistleblowers, it said, also warned about political appointees ignoring the advice of "top ethics advisers at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts."

In addition to McFarland, Flynn's top Middle East adviser, Derek Harvey, played a key role in promoting the plan in the White House, doing so despite warnings of possible ethics and criminal law violations, the report said.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to press for Iran sanctions in Middle East trip

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday on a hastily arranged visit to the Middle East as the United States aims to muster support for new sanctions against Iran.

The visit to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Amman just two days after Pompeo was sworn in comes as U.S. President Donald Trump is set to decide whether to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that is still supported by European powers.

“We are urging nations around the world to sanction any individuals and entities associated with Iran’s missile program, and it has also been a big part of discussions with Europeans,” Brian Hook, a senior policy advisor travelling with Pompeo, told reporters.

Hook said a salvo of ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Iran-allied Houthi movement that killed a man earlier on Saturday had been provided by Tehran.

“Iran’s missiles prolong war and suffering in the Middle East, they threaten our security and economic interests and they especially threaten Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he said.

The 2015 deal that limits Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief does not cover its missile programme.

Trump has called it the “worst deal ever” and threatened to re-impose sanctions unless Britain, France and Germany agree to fix it. Resuming sanctions would likely kill the deal.

Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France, which all struck the accord with Iran and the United States, see the deal as the best way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.

Speaking after a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Friday, Pompeo said Trump had not taken a decision on whether to abandon the deal but was not likely to stick to it without substantial changes.

“There’s been no decision, so the team is working and I am sure we will have lots of conversations to deliver what the president has made clear,” Pompeo told a news conference.

Earlier this week French President Emmanuel Macron called on Trump not to abandon the deal, although he later acknowledged he thought he would pull out.

The Trump administration is also currently reviewing the U.S. role in fighting Islamic State in Syria’s seven-year conflict. Trump has called on Gulf countries to provide funding and troops to stabilize areas once controlled by the group in Syria.

Pompeo was one of the first Trump administration officials to visit Saudi Arabia early in his tenure as CIA director.

In Riyadh, Pompeo was greeted on the tarmac by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. He is expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman during the visit.

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Pence visit to Middle East stirs anger over Jerusalem declaration

When presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers visit the Holy Land, the script is simple: a trip to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, and then off to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian leader.

But that script has been torn up in anger by the Palestinians for U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s four-day visit to the Middle East.

“He is not welcome,” said Hani Baidoun, a resident of East Jerusalem who has fought for an independent state for the Palestinians for much of his life. “[Pence] is against the position of the Palestinians.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has refused to meet with Pence, enraged by the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump also began the process of moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Hani Baidoun

Hani Baidoun, a longtime Palestinian activist, said Palestinian leaders are right to boycott the visit by Pence. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Palestinian fury continues

“May your house be destroyed,” an angry Abbas told Trump during a fiery speech before Palestinian leaders last week, in which he also refused to work with the United States as a mediator in future negotiations with the Israelis.

The Pence visit comes six weeks after the vice-president stood next to his boss in the White House as Trump reversed decades of American policy that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in talks between both sides.

That declaration saw Palestinians take to the streets in protest, in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank. Some of those demonstrations turned violent, with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting that 14 Palestinians were killed in clashes and Israeli airstrikes in the three weeks after Trump made his speech.


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a fiery speech in response to Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 14. (Reuters)

‘Disagreement between friends’

The policy shift continues to roil the Middle East, and has forced Pence to explain the U.S. position to two important regional allies, Egypt and Jordan, the only neighbours of Israel that have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

After meeting Egypt’s president Abdul Fattah el-Sisi on Saturday, Pence said there is a “disagreement between friends,” but he noted “that nothing has changed and that we are absolutely committed to building a partnership for security, confronting terrorism together, but also finding ways that we can advance the peace process.”

Right now, that process is stalled, despite Trump’s declaration that he wants to negotiate the “ultimate deal” between the Israelis and Palestinians even in the face of deep divisions over Jerusalem. 

Israel views the city as its eternal and undivided capital, and its leaders have heaped praise on Trump for recognizing what they say is an inevitable truth: that with Israel’s parliament and government offices located in Jerusalem, it’s only right to bestow this recognition. 

Lisa Nemets

Lisa Nemets, left, welcomed Mike Pence’s visit to Israel, declaring that Israelis ‘like what he stands for.’ (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

“It’s declaring what we already know, but it shows to the world that this is the capital of Israel,” said Jerusalem resident Lisa Nemets. “So we stand with that.”

The vice-president is scheduled to speak before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Monday afternoon. Pence will be given a warm welcome by Israeli lawmakers, although Arab members of parliament are boycotting the address. 

Palestinian claims on the Holy City

Palestinians want to establish the capital of a future state in East Jerusalem, and on Sunday they received a boost from King Abdullah II of Jordan, who voiced his backing of “East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.”

Canada, like most nations with diplomatic relations with Israel, has committed to keeping its diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv until the final status of Jerusalem has been settled in negotiations. At least one other country, Guatemala, is following the American lead after the Central American nation announced it will move its embassy to Jerusalem.

The relationship between the Trump administration and the Palestinians suffered yet another blow last week, when the United States decided to withhold $ 65 million in funding for UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency that assists Palestinian refugees, raising fears that schools and medical clinics could face cuts.

Hanan Ashrawi

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the Palestinian response to Pence’s visit: ‘Nobody wants to see him.’ (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, accused the United States of “punishing the most vulnerable populations” and “destabilizing neighbouring countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.”

Pence was scheduled to travel to the Middle East in mid-December, but the trip was delayed because of a tax vote in the U.S. Senate. He has said the visit is an opportunity to discuss American concerns about the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program and to fight religious persecution of Christians in the region.

Evangelicals welcome Pence visit

An evangelical Christian who famously said he is “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence was supposed to go to the Biblical town of Bethlehem, but that has also been scrapped from the itinerary. 

Evangelical Christians remain some of Trump’s strongest supporters, and some political watchers say his decision on Jerusalem was aimed at keeping that part of his base happy. They see the move as standing in support of Israel, as well as fulfilling a Biblical prophecy.


Pence stood behind Donald Trump as the president recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel at the White House on Dec. 6. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Brian Parsons, the vice-president of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, hailed Trump’s declaration as “courageous.” 

He added in an interview with CBC News: “We think that the Pence visit is another expression of solidarity with Israel, which we think is very needed. Too often the world gangs up on Israel and bullies Israel in very unfair ways.”

But PLO member Ashrawi, who is Christian, took aim at Pence, said in an interview that his “evangelical extremist fundamentalist Christianity… goes against the whole tradition of pluralism and tolerance and inclusion.

“That’s why I don’t believe he should come here.”

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Pope urges 2-state solution in Middle East in Christmas message

Pope Francis used his Christmas message on Monday to call for a negotiated two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after U.S. President Donald Trump stoked regional tensions with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Francis spoke of the Middle East conflict and other world flashpoints in his urbi et orbi (to the city and the world) address, four days after more than 120 countries backed a UN resolution urging the United States to reverse its decision on Jerusalem.

“Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two states within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders,” he said, referring to the Israelis and Palestinians.

“We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” he said in his address, delivered from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to tens of thousands of people.

It was the second time that the pope has spoken out publicly about Jerusalem since Trump’s decision on Dec. 6. On that day, Francis called for the city’s “status quo” to be respected, lest new tensions in the Middle East further inflame world conflicts.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future independent state, whereas Israel has declared the whole city to be its “united and eternal” capital. 

Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, urged people to see the defenceless baby Jesus in the children who suffer the most from war, migration and natural calamities caused by man today.

“Today, as the winds of war are blowing in our world … Christmas invites us to focus on the sign of the child and to recognize him in the faces of little children, especially those for whom, like Jesus, ‘there is no place in the inn,'” he said. 

Calls for protection of dignity for Rohingya

Francis, celebrating the fifth Christmas of his pontificate, said he had seen Jesus in the children he met during his recent trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, and he called for adequate protection of the dignity of minority groups in that region.

More than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya people have fled mainly Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh in recent months. The pope had to tread a delicate diplomatic line during his visit, avoiding the word “Rohingya” while in Myanmar, which does not recognize them as a minority group, though he used the term when in Bangladesh.

“Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed and how hard it is not to have a place to lay one’s head. May our hearts not be closed as they were in the homes of Bethlehem,” he said.

He also urged the world to see Jesus in the innocent children suffering from wars in Syria and Iraq and also in Yemen, complaining that its people had been “largely forgotten, with serious humanitarian implications for its people, who suffer from hunger and the spread of diseases”.

He also listed conflicts affecting children in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Ukraine and Venezuela.

At his Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday, Francis strongly defended immigrants, comparing them to Mary and Joseph finding no place to stay in Bethlehem and saying faith demands that foreigners be welcomed.

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