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US Joint Chiefs quarantined after official tests positive

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The Pentagon says it won’t affect ‘the operational readiness or mission capability of the US Armed Forces’.

Members of the United States military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff have gone into self-quarantine after the Coast Guard’s second-in-command tested positive for the novel coronavirus following a top-level meeting at the Pentagon last week, US officials said on Tuesday. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was among those affected, Pentagon officials said.

US defence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, stressed that the military’s top brass – with the exception of the Coast Guard Vice Commandant, Admiral Charles Ray – had all tested negative so far and were still carrying out their duties. None have exhibited symptoms or have so far tested positive.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the quarantining of leaders will not affect “the operational readiness or mission capability of the US Armed Forces”.

“Senior military leaders are able to remain fully mission-capable and perform their duties from an alternative work location,” he said.

Hoffman’s statement did not identify those affected, but multiple US officials said that besides Milley, they included the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the head of US Cyber Command, General Paul Nakasone.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss information not yet made public.

The disclosure risks adding to a sense of uncertainty about operations at the highest levels of the US government after President Donald Trump himself contracted the illness, along with senior White House staff and other Republican leaders.

It is not known how Ray contracted the virus, but it was not believed to be related to the outbreak affecting Trump and others at the White House, the officials said.

The Coast Guard said in a statement that Ray felt mild symptoms over the weekend and was tested on Monday. The other military officials were informed about Ray’s positive test the same day.

Ray attended meetings late last week with the US military’s top brass, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Milley, who is Trump’s top military advisor.

US officials told Reuters that Milley was self-isolating, as was the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The Coast Guard said Ray will be quarantining from home.

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US-Russia crew back to Earth in first post-lockdown space mission

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NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner touch down safely on Kazakhstan steppe.

An American astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts have touched down safely on the Kazakhstan steppe, completing a 196-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that began with the first such launch under coronavirus lockdown conditions.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner landed approximately 150km (90 miles) southeast of the Kazakh city of Zhezqazghan at 02.54 GMT on Thursday, footage broadcast by the Russian space agency Roscosmos showed.

Visuals from the landing site showed a seated Cassidy bumping elbows with one member of the crew at the recovery site and saluting another after they exited the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft. They were then taken to medical tents ahead of their onward journeys to Moscow and Houston.

“How are things?” asked Cassidy in Russian, smiling.

The three-man crew had blasted off minus the usual fanfare in April with around half the world’s population living under lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

They did not face questions from reporters in the Baikonur space launch facility and were not waved off by family and friends – both time-honoured traditions before the pandemic.

Their pre-flight quarantine was also intensified as they eschewed customary sightseeing trips to Moscow from their training base outside the Russian capital.

The mission, carried out by tycoon Elon Musk’s SpaceX company as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, has helped heighten talk of a new “space race” between a number of countries.

But Russia’s Roscosmos, which enjoyed a monopoly on travel to and from the space station from 2011, remains the fastest player in the game in terms of travel to and from the ISS.

Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley’s journey in May to the space station and return to Earth in August in the SpaceX craft saw the pair spend the best part of the two days in transit.

Cassidy, Ivanishin and Vagner’s touchdown on Thursday by contrast came less than three-and-a-half hours after undocking, while a three-person crew reached the ISS from Baikonur in just three hours and three minutes last week, setting a new absolute record.

Prior to returning from his third mission in space, former US Navy SEAL Cassidy, 50, tweeted a picture of blood samples that astronauts have to submit at various points in their mission, including just before undocking.

“What is the price of a return ride back to Earth? … 8 tubes of blood!! The 7 shown in this picture were taken in the morning to be placed in our deep freezer, and the 8th will be drawn just prior to undock for ground processing soon after landing,” Sudoku puzzle fan Cassidy wrote.

First-time-flyer Vagner was a rare Roscosmos presence on the micro-blogging platform, where most NASA astronauts have a profile.

“Mama, I’m coming home,” the 35-year-old tweeted on Wednesday.

Ivanishin, 51, wrapped up his third mission, after NASA’s Kathleen Rubins, with whom he launched to the ISS in 2016, arrived for a second stint on board the station last Wednesday along with Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos.

The ISS has been a rare example of cooperation between Moscow and Washington.

Members recently reported issues with the oxygen production system, a toilet and the oven for preparing food.

But Roscosmos said in a statement on Tuesday that the issues had been “fully resolved by the crew”.

“All the systems of the station are working well and there is no danger to the crew or the ISS.”

Next month will mark the 20th anniversary of the orbital lab being permanently occupied by humans, but the station is expected to be decommissioned in the next 10 years due to structural fatigue.

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Israel travel ban: Gaza nurses protest loss of permits, layoffs

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Nurses expressed anger at Israel, which has restricted the entrance of Palestinians from Gaza, and the Makassed hospital which laid them off.

A group of nurses from the besieged Gaza Strip have staged a protest in a public square, saying an Israeli travel ban has led the Jerusalem hospital they worked at for many years to fire them.

Seven nurses, who worked at the Makassed Hospital in Jerusalem for at least 20 years each, gathered in Gaza City on Wednesday, wearing lab coats and holding banners that said: “Firing us is a death sentence for our profession and families.”

They are angry at Israel – which has heavily restricted the ability of Palestinians to leave the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, even for work – and at the decision by Makassed to lay them off.

“We never expected that Makassed would dismiss us arbitrarily,” said Baher Lulu, 53, a critical-care nurse who said he joined the hospital 30 years ago when travel from Gaza to Jerusalem did not require Israeli permission.

“This has hurt us and our families, who rely heavily on this income.”

Vaguely defined permit process

Israel has always formally required a work permit for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel.

Before the first Intifada – 1987 to 1993 – the permit system was reportedly widely unenforced or permits easily acquired when applied for. After the Intifada, work permits have become increasingly difficult to obtain for Palestinians.

In 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas gained control of the territory, and movement became even more difficult.

Under the blockade, it restricts the entrance of Palestinians from Gaza to Israel on security grounds it defines, with some humanitarian exceptions.

The medics said they used to receive renewable three-month permits that allowed them to spend the week at Makassed and return to Gaza each weekend.

But, they say, starting in 2016 Israeli authorities gradually stopped issuing permits – citing security controls – and by 2019, none of them had permits.

COGAT, the Israeli body that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, said it is forced to restrict access because Hamas “does not hesitate to promote terrorism by cynically exploiting the Gaza Strip’s population”.

It said its rules for entry are available on its website, and every permit request “is thoroughly examined by the relevant professionals, subject to security considerations”.

Human rights groups have long criticised the permit process, saying the criteria are vague.

An official from Makassed, one of several hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem serving Palestinians from the city, West Bank and Gaza, declined to comment.

The nurses say the hospital had asked them to volunteer at medical centres in their hometown until they could travel again. But this summer, they received the dismissal letters, brought by a patient returning from treatment in Jerusalem.

The medics say Makassed has weathered a series of financial challenges, but they believe a decision by the Trump administration in 2018 to redirect US aid elsewhere from the network of occupied East Jerusalem hospitals has left the hospital unable to continue paying their salaries.

The medics say there is no chance of finding full-time work in Gaza, where unemployment is close to 50 percent.

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After teacher’s killing, French Muslims fear rising Islamophobia

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Paris, France – The gruesome killing of a teacher by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin is testing the country’s fragile relationship with its Muslim minority, with growing fears of collective punishment.

The teenager attacked Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old father, in broad daylight on Friday, beheading him near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles (24km) from the centre of a Paris.

There has been an outpouring of grief and shock among top officials; Paty on Wednesday posthumously received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, in a ceremony attended by President Emmanuel Macron. Thousands have attended protests.

Paty’s attacker had been angered that he showed his pupils caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the days after the killing, the government launched a crackdown against Muslim organisations while vigilante groups have attacked mosques; places of worship in Beziers and Bordeaux have been placed under police protection after having been threatened with violence.

Tensions between the state and France’s Muslims, the largest Muslim minority in Europe, have deepened.

They were already on a downward trend after Macron, on October 2, launched a plan against what he called “Islamist separatism” and said Islam was “in crisis” across the world.

Muslims fear Paty’s tragic death is already being weaponised to advance a government policy they worry conflates Islam with “terrorism”.

“Muslims are being targeted,” Yasser Louati, a French Muslim activist, told Al Jazeera, adding he believed Macron was “using Islamophobia to power his campaign.”

On Monday, the French government said it was strengthening its crackdown on suspected “extremists”, carrying out multiple raids and threatening a mass expulsion of more than 200 people.

More than 50 Muslim organisations are being targeted; the “Cheikh Yassine Collective”, an organisation has already been banned in the wake of the killing.

But there are more surprising names on the list.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has proposed to ban the Collective Against Islamaphobia in France (CCIF), an association that tracks anti-Muslim hate crimes, in a move that more than 50 civil society groups and academics have warned against.

In an interview with French radio station Europe 1, Darmanin lambasted CCIF as an “enemy of the republic”, adding it was one of several organisations he would dissolve at Macron’s personal request.

CCIF condemned Darmanin’s language as slander, stating the government was “criminalising the fight against Islamophobia”.

Darmanin, who was appointed in July during a cabinet reshuffle, routinely raises eyebrows for comments appealing to conservative and far-right parties.

In an interview with BFMTV Tuesday evening, he said he was “shocked” to see Halal and Kosher food aisles in supermarkets, which he believes contributes to separatism in France, comments that were instantly mocked on social media.

But there are fears recent government actions contribute to a discourse that endangers Muslim lives.

“What is going in France at the moment is unprecedented,” activist and co-founder of CCIF, Marwan Muhammed wrote on Twitter last week. “Fundamental freedoms are at stake, as the government is focused on stigmatising and criminalising Muslim communities.”

Many viewed the government’s vigorous and accelerated response to Friday’s attack as a dire warning that the law could be manipulated to target Muslims more generally.

The crackdown has echoes of France’s response to the deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris by ISIL. Human rights groups criticised those measures, which saw mass arrests and raids under emergency rule, saying they yielded few results and left Muslims feeling like second-class citizens.

A French Republican Guard holds a portrait inside Sorbonne University’s courtyard in Paris on October 21, 2020, during a national homage to French teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class [Francois Mori/ POOL/AFP]

During Wednesday’s eulogy, Macron remembered Paty as someone who “loved books, loved knowledge”.

Originally intent on becoming a researcher, Paty chose instead to follow the same path of his parents and become a teacher.

Paty ultimately was killed, Macron said, “because he made the choice to teach.”

He had shown the caricatures during a lesson about free speech.

Muslims believe that any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemous.

According to reports, Paty advised Muslim students who might be offended to leave the room or look away during this part of the discussion, as a measure of sensitivity.

The attacker posted a photo of the decapitation on Twitter before being shot and killed the police. According to French media, the teenager had been in touch with Paty before the killing.

Fifteen people have been arrested as part of an investigation into the killing, including the assailant’s family members.

The attack also follows two stabbings last month outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September at the start of the trial for those suspected involvement in the January 2015 attacks which killed 17 people.

In his anticipated October 2 speech, Macron sought to address “radicalisation”.

The new law he is proposing to push religion further out of education and the public sector in France, aims to strengthen “laicite”, France’s strict separation of church and state.

It would, among other things, let the state monitor international funding coming into French mosques, limit homeschooling to prevent Muslims schools from being run by what Macron cited as “religious extremists”, and create a special certificate programme for imams to be trained in France.

Mame-Fatou Niang, an associate professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon University, told Al Jazeera the government was not simply “going to war against terrorists”.

“Rather they’re taking these seeds of division planted by terrorists to erase any grey areas and create a completely polarised society … it’s a declaration against not only fundamentalists but against Muslims in general.”

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