Monthly Archives: July 2011

Palestine is Still the Issue: Why Britain should thank Sheikh Raed Salah

My fortnightly column in Ceasefire Magazine.

By Asa Winstanley

Sheikh Raed Salah is a Palestinian activist and religious leader famous in the Arab world for leading non-violent demonstrations against Israeli abuses and discrimination in Jerusalem. As leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, he politically represents a significant proportion of the 1948 Palestinians – i.e. the 1.5 million Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship.

Despite numerous attacks on Salah by the Israeli state, including political arrests on trumped-up charges and even – he alleges – an assassination attempt, the Islamic Movement has never been proscribed in Israel since it is a purely political movement. Salah refuses on principle to take part in the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) but one faction of his movement does (usually referred to as the “southern branch” of the Islamic movement).

But you would not have known any of this from the hysterical reaction from the British press when he entered the country for a speaking tour last month. He has been demonised by most of the British press – led as usual by the Daily Mail in their never-ending quest for an Islamic immigrant bogeyman. They probably wish he had a hooked hand or an eye patch, but I guess the beard was enough for them.

Salah was arrested on the personal order of Home Secretary Theresa May, despite entering the country legally, with no problems at Heathrow.

Although Zionist bloggers such as Michael Weiss (of the Henry Jackson Society and the pro-Israel propaganda outfit “Just Journalism” – which was apparently named with a straight face) accused Salah of anti-Semitism, his accusations rested on Israeli sources such as discredited translations group MEMRI which was founded by Colonel Yigal Carmon, formerly a high-ranking member of Israeli intelligence. MEMRI refuses as a point of policy to translate from the Hebrew press, preferring instead to select clips that make Arabs and Muslims look bad.

Predictably enough considering the source of the anti-Semitism accusations were Israeli, most of the British press repeated them uncritically and seemingly without checks. Few even bothered to report that Salah denied having made the anti-Semitic statements attributed to him. Because who cares what Muslims say about themselves? Apparently.

But this week a High Court judge released Salah on bail. Not only did Mr Justice Stadlen comment that Salah had entered the country legally, since the Home Secretary’s told no one about her exclusion order until after Salah’s entry (although she now claims she signed it two days prior,) but the Home Office’s barrister admitted as much in court.

What I seemed to be witnessing in court while reporting on the case for Electronic Intifada was the government’s case falling apart. Their list of “unacceptable behaviour” seemed to be either based on anti-Semitic statements uncharacteristic of Salah (statements he strongly denied having made) or farcically lifted from half-hearted Israeli press releases. Indeed: I couldn’t help but suspect that Israel had encouraged the Home Secretary to arrest Salah, and provided material for the list, so flimsy were their “accusations” against him.

For example, they “accused” Salah of being linked to Turkish charity IHH. IHH is a totally legitimate Turkish aid group but it started to be attacked by a barrage of unfounded Zionist smear campaigns after it participated in the first Freedom Flotilla to Gaza last year. Another example of alleged “unacceptable behaviour” strong enough to bar Salah from the country which the government cited was an interview that the Middle East Monitor conducted with Salah in June in which he discussed the Palestinian right of return and the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

Unsurprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly for those of us who have no faith in the British justice system) the judge found this all unconvincing. He didn’t make a judgement either way on whether or not Salah had actually said the anti-Semitic statements which he denies, since that is for the full judicial review set to take place in September. But he did say he was satisfied Salah’s legal team has a good case.

Despite being unjustly imprisoned for three weeks, despite being wrongly accused of entering the country illegally, and despite being demonised by the British press, Salah is staying in the country to clear his name. He is now free on bail. There is nothing stopping him from returning to Palestine, except for principles. Instead he has chosen to stay in the country under bail restrictions that prevent him from speaking to the public, force him to wear an electric tag, observe a night time curfew and report daily to immigration authorities.

If in the end he manages to clear his name it will be a blow to the government’s claim to a right of political detention. Salah will have done us all a favour by landing a blow to both draconian government measures and media scare-mongering.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

 

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UK court releases Raed Salah as government case flounders

Originally published by The Electronic Intifada

 

After nearly three weeks in British jails, influential Palestinian activist and religious leader Sheikh Raed Salah was conditionally released today. He had been granted bail in the High Court on Friday, where The Electronic Intifada watched as the British government’s case against him floundered.

Leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Salah had been on a speaking tour in the UK when he was abruptly arrested on the way back to his London hotel on the night of 28 June. The full legal case against a government order banning him from the country is likely to be heard in September.

“We will continue to fight the Home Secretary’s exclusion order,” said Salah’s British solicitor Tayab Ali, who described bail as “the first step towards justice.”

In a press release, Daud Abdullah, director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), who had invited Salah to Britain to give talks to politicians and academics, said: “We are confident that the release of Sheikh Raed will be the beginning of a successful attempt to exonerate him from the character slurs and allegations that have appeared in some sections of the media.”

Salah was not present at the High Court on Friday, but the small court room was filled with his supporters. Towards the end of a long day of debate, the judge, Mr Justice Stadlen granted bail. He then spent nearly two hours detailing his rationale. He also imposed several restrictive conditions the Home Office had asked for. Salah will have to wear an electronic tag, report daily to an immigration center and observe a 6pm to 9am nighttime curfew. Perhaps most onerously of all, Salah will be barred from speaking to the public. The Electronic Intifada understands that this particular condition will in effect bar Salah from speaking to the press as well.

Arrested during speaking tour

On the night of 28 June, arresting police officers had told Salah he was going to be deported because of immigration offenses. Stadlen noted in summarizing his reasons for granting bail that this point appeared on the police custody record. But a government lawyer admitted in court on Friday that when Salah had entered the country using his Israeli passport on 25 June he had done so legally.

Steven Kovats QC was the barrister presenting objections to Salah’s bail application on behalf of Home Secretary Theresa May. He said since no one had informed Salah of any banning order, he was actually entitled to get on the plane to the UK and “didn’t do anything wrong in doing that.” It was an admission of something his supporters have said all along. In his summary, Stadlen clarified Salah “was admitted lawfully” on a six-month visitor’s visa, and said it was accepted Salah’s entry was not in contravention of an exclusion order.

Some UK journalists and bloggers had falsely accused Salah of entering the country illegally. Salah had no problems with his Israeli passport at Heathrow airport, but anti-immigration sectors of the press used this point to paint a picture of supposedly lax British border controls.

At a Parliamentary Select Committee hearing one week after his arrest, Theresa May claimed she had personally signed an exclusion order on Salah two days before he entered. She said she deemed his presence “not conducive to the public good” since he engaged in “unacceptable behavior” — one of the legal grounds possible under the law on exclusions. May said there would be a “full inquiry” into why “something went wrong” – he was let into the country without even being questioned by the UK Border Agency (Home Affairs Select Committee: The Work of the Home Secretary, 5 July, Parliament TV).

But it became clearer on Friday that Salah had been in the UK on at least four previous occasions between 1997 and 2009, and there had been no objections then from the government. Kovats said the government could not confirm or deny this, saying “we have no record of his movements” in our databases, but did not deny it was true. As an Israeli citizen, Salah does not need to apply for a visa before arriving in the country. Also, said Kovats, his passport was issued in 2011, so contained none of the old arrival stamps.

BDS, refugee rights advocacy “unacceptable behavior”

Raza Husain QC presented a long and detailed argument for bail on behalf of Salah. As it unfolded throughout the morning, refuting the Home Office’s objections in some detail, it became clear that May’s “unacceptable behavior” rationale was indeed a reference to alleged anti-Semitism. Husain made detailed rebuttals of the specific accusations that formed part of the government’s objections to bail.

The British press had circulated accusations of an anti-Semitic “poem” they attributed to Salah. But under instruction from Salah, Husain emphasized he absolutely denies writing the poem and “finds it offensive” because of its anti-Semitic content.

Husain made a point-by-point rebuttal of several accusations of anti-Semitism on behalf of Salah. He categorically denied anti-Semitic statements attributed to him, and contested that several other statements the government had cited were actually examples of legitimate free speech.

The Home Office listed as another example of “unacceptable behavior” an interview with MEMO in which Salah advocated the Palestinian right of return and the boycott divestment and sanctions movement (“Raed Salah: Israel preparing to complete the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians,” MEMO interview, 14 June).

The government did not even attempt to contest Husain’s rebuttals. Kovats replied they were not currently in a position to do so. He even admitted there were “disputes of facts” on whether or not Salah had actually said the statements – statements their own objection to bail document seems to have attributed to him. In his summary, Stadlen said he had heard no evidence to support the alleged statements.

Israeli indictments made on same day as UK order

It was also revealed on Friday that on the very same day May now says she signed the exclusion order, 23 June, two indictments against Salah were issued in a Jerusalem court. These related to an allegation of incitement from 2007 and an allegation of “obstructing a Police Officer” from April 2011.

This coincidence, along with Israel-like rationales in the government’s case for objecting to the bail application, seem to back up Salah’s accusation that Israel bears responsibility for his arrest in the UK. For example, the government objection to bail also alleged that Salah has links with the Turkish charity IHH, which they said was alleged to have provided Hamas with aid – a claim rejected by IHH.

The government submissions also alleged Salah has links to Hamas. Husain, acting on instructions from Salah, absolutely denied this. The only evidence the government seemed to present on this point was a statement Hamas had issued on one of its website protesting his arrest.

As a well-known and important Palestinian leader of popular resistance against Israeli discrimination in Jerusalem, Salah’s arrest evoked condemnation from the the whole Palestinian political spectrum, including appointed, UK-recognized West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (“Salam Fayyad says Sheikh Raed’s arrest will harm the PA,” MEMO press release, 30 June).

The government’s case seemed almost farcical at times. At one point, an individual from the Home Office team sitting behind Kovats passed the barrister a note. Kovats then made the point that the continuation of multiple hearings for Salah’s case was attracting unwelcome attention. This seemed to be a reference to the media, but the judge was not impressed. “That’s not a very attractive argument, is it?” said Justice Stadlen, causing the court room to stifle a laugh.

Salah had said soon after his arrest that he “will not yield voluntarily to the deportation” and that his lawyers will fight the court case. He is now seems to be making good on that promise.

At one point, Justice Stadlen read out parts of a transcript in which immigration officials interviewed Salah, asking if he was willing to leave the country. “Where to?” he is said to have replied, “I plan to end this visit.” He was also recorded as laughing, and explaining: “I am happy to go back but I want to finish my visit.”

Friends of Al-Aqsa Chairperson Ismail Patel said in a press release bail was “a tremendous relief. It is worth remembering that this situation was wholly avoidable and the Home Secretary’s arrest of Sheikh Raed Salah and attempt to deport him were not backed up with any firm evidence.” Patel was one of two people putting up bail money totaling £30,000 ($48,000).

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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Palestine is Still the Issue: The Freedom Flotilla, Raed Salah, and Israel’s myth of invincibility

Originally published in Ceasefire

By Asa Winstanley

The second flotilla of activists intent on reaching Gaza by sea has so far been prevented from sailing by the Greek authorities. The Greek coast guard boarded two ships attempting to make a break for Gaza and forced them back to port. The reason given was unconvincing: they feared for the safety of passengers in light of what happened last year when Israel killed nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara. So why, then, did they not instead pressure Israel to allow the ships to sail safely?

In Britain last week, Raed Salah, a prominent leader of Palestinian popular resistance in Jerusalem was arrested by UK border police. Home Secretary Theresa May had apparently banned Salah from the country – although no one seemed to have been told about the ban before he flew into Heathrow airport, entering legally on his Israeli passport.

Salah is an Israeli citizen, elected three times as the mayor of Um al-Fahm, one of the largest Palestinian towns in the 1948 territories. Salah is currently challenging the deportation order in the courts, and his lawyers have started libel actions against several British journalists who had accused him of anti-Semitism.

These events do seem to demonstrate Israel has a degree of control over the policies of other countries. But I argue these are in fact symptoms of shared economic interests (or perhaps we could say desperation in the case of Greece), and common ideologies of racism and colonialism in the case of the US and Britain.

For example, the British press furore that surrounded the entry of Salah did not focus on any alleged “threat” to Israeli interests. In fact the tabloids were generally hazy about where he even comes from. Instead the picture they put forward was along the lines of “isn’t it disgraceful this scary bearded Muslim extremist managed to sneak into our country?”

Considering that Israel has for years tried and failed to find some way of silencing Salah, it would not surprise me if it turns out they had some hand in his arrest (Salah himself said from prison that Israel bore the responsibility). But a British political and media establishment which so often uses Muslims as scapegoats has its own reasons to generate irrational fear about Salah.

Pro-Israel lobbyists like to talk about the “shared values” of Britain and Israel. They, of course, claim these are nice things like democracy and human rights. But in cases like the unjustified arrest of Raed Salah, we start to see the real shared values of Israel and Britain: in this case racism and Islamophobic scare-mongering.

We also see the reality of shared interests and common methods when comparing Israeli and British wars (such as in Afghanistan). Israel and Britain use similar justifications when killing civilians: they were just “collateral damage”. Torturers in the respective armies were just a few “bad apples”. Fighters on the other side use “human shields” (an accusation which in the case of Israel is a matter of projection bias: Israel’s genuine use of Palestinians as human shields is well documented by human rights groups).

With Greece, we should perhaps be more surprised. The country has a history of stormy relations with Israel. In 2009, Greece actually blocked an arms shipment during the Israeli onslaught against the Gaza Strip.

But the recent financial meltdown seems to have changed things. There have been reports of increased Greek-Israeli ties, such as tourism links, a joint air force drill, a proposed natural gas pipeline project and even the sale of large amounts of riot gear to Greece. It seems the tear gas reserves are being depleted by Greek police attempting to put down the popular Greek protest movement against IMF austerity measures.

For those who want to act in solidarity with Palestinian human rights, such ties can seem like formidable obstacles. But we should bear in mind that Israel is very much in the business of talking up and exaggerating its own power. It wants to re-build its myth of invincibility, so damaged by the 2000 and 2006 military defeats by volunteer resistance fighters in Lebanon. Now Israel is increasingly moving into the the arena of talking up its diplomatic power.

In this context, having to lean on a state in as dire financial straits as Greece is perhaps more of a sign of weakness than anything else. The very first Free Gaza boats in 2008 were allowed through with very little publicity. By demonising simple solidarity actions like the flotillas to Gaza and the “Welcome to Palestine” fly-in to Tel Aviv airport yesterday, Israel is humiliating itself in front of the world.

The act of attempting to deliver a cargo of letters to Gaza has led to a massive military, diplomatic and financial counter-operation – in a climate of near hysteria, with Israeli politicians talking as if they are in some sort of war. Speaking about the fly-in, one minister even invoked the 9/11 attacks: “We should… keep in mind what happened in the Twin Towers disaster”. A regime that resorts to such ridiculous, oxymoronic terms for its critics as “human rights militants” is very much on the wrong side of history.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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UK deportation order against Palestinian leader to be appealed

First published by Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley | The Electronic Intifada | London | 1 July 2011

After a furor in the British press, a political leader of Palestinian citizens in Israel remains in a British jail tonight. Authorities cut his speaking tour short by arresting him this week.

Sheikh Raed Salah said from prison that he “will not yield voluntarily to the deportation” and that his lawyers will challenge it in the courts. Tour organizers said Friday a formal appeal would be lodged by the end of the day.

Activists accuse Israel of putting pressure on the British government to harass Salah, and Salah himself said “Israel carries the full responsibility for his detention in the United Kingdom.”

Leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Salah was arrested and handcuffed by police as he returned to his London hotel from a talk Tuesday night. Yet the UK Border Agency had allowed him to enter the country through Heathrow airport on Saturday, giving no indication anything was wrong.

UK police treated Salah like “a criminal”

Dr. Ibrahim Hamami, a London-based Palestinian activist told The Electronic Intifada on Wednesday that Salah had been given until 6 July to file an appeal against his deportation, and would also be able to seek release on bail. Salah had arrived legally on his Israeli passport without even being questioned, tour organizers said.

The police “treated us badly,” said Salah’s translator Hassan Sanalah, who was with him during the arrest. Sanalah told The Electronic Intifada on Thursday that one policeman “tried to push me [and said] ‘don’t interfere, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the man,’ to Raed Salah. I told him he doesn’t speak English but he didn’t care.” They refused to let Sanalah accompany Salah to the station, and said they would use their own translator.

Tour organizers Lubna Marsawa and Samira Quraishy arrived at the hotel just in time to witness Salah being taken away in a police van.

“You felt for him,” Quraishy told The Electronic Intifada yesterday. “He’s such a lovely man, so humble and so polite and so sweet. I felt so angry.” Quraishy works for the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), a group that organized the tour.

Marsawa, also a Palestinian citizen of Israel, tried without success to accompany Salah in the police van. She described the situation as “very humiliating … arresting someone like him [as if] he was a criminal.”

Marsawa added that police seemed to have have been given information that she and the other organizers were violent people. She described how a police woman ran at her, apparently “scared that I may attack them or something.”

Libel proceedings filed

Salah has been in the UK speaking to the public and politicians about the Arab uprisings, and to help the Palestine Solidarity Campaign launch a new campaign on Jerusalem. Before the arrest he spoke at public meetings in London and Leicester, as well as a roundtable in Parliament with MPs and researchers organized by Liberal Democrat Baroness Jenny Tonge. Organizers were given no notice from authorities there was any problem, said Marsawa.

The arrest came after a campaign this week by pro-Israel bloggers and right-wing tabloids such as the Daily Mail accusing Salah of anti-Semitism, a charge he strongly denies. MEMO said the charges were an “absolute lie and a malicious fabrication” and that Salah’s lawyers had begun libel proceedings against journalists in three British newspapers, including Evening Standard London editor Andrew Gilligan.

Gilligan then claimed on his blog he had received no such legal papers, but the offices of Farooq Bajwa & Co countered Friday by releasing a copy of the letter they had written to to Gilligan on behalf of Salah demanding a retraction (“Who is lying?,” 1 July).

According to Adalah- the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Salah has never been charged with incitement or anti-Semitism in Israel. The accusations of anti-Semitism in the British press cited unreliable sources such as MEMRI, a discredited translation service run by a former member of Israeli intelligence.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign meeting to launch the Jerusalem campaign at the House of Parliament’s Grand Committee Room went ahead in Salah’s absence on Wednesday evening, despite press reports it had been “banned” or moved to “an undisclosed location.”

Was Salah banned?

After the arrest, Home Secretary Theresa May issued a statement on the Home Office website on Wednesday saying Salah “was excluded and that he managed to enter the UK. He has now been detained and the UK Border Agency is now making arrangements to remove him [from the country]” (“Islamic movement leader detained,” 29 June).

Later that day, the Speaker of the House of Commons reported that “The Home Secretary informed me late last night that Sheikh Raed Salah has been arrested with a view to deportation on the ground that his presence is not conducive to the public good” (Hansard, Commons Debates, 29 June, column 978).

Some British journalists and pro-Israel bloggers are claiming he entered the UK in spite of a ban, and that the UK Border Agency had made a mistake. But Sanalah told The Electronic Intifada the police who actually made the arrest did not mention any ban or “exclusion.” They instead talked of “a deportation order against him.”

As late as Monday afternoon, one MP questioning Theresa May in the Commons seemed to think Salah had not yet been banned.

MP Mike Freer, a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “The Home Secretary will be aware that Mr Raed Salah has been invited to speak in the palace precincts [Parliament]. Given this man’s history of virulent anti-Semitism, will the Home Secretary ban him from entering the UK?”

May replied only in general terms about “excluding” visitors whose entry “is not conducive to the public good,” stating that the “Home Office does not routinely comment on individual cases.” There was no specific mention of a ban on Salah (Hansard, Commons Debates, 27 June, column 614).

Mail journalist warned of arrest

Meanwhile, Marsawa accused the Daily Mail of “strange” behavior, and both she and Sanalah spoke of the paper following them around the country. Sanalah said the Mail’s coverage was “politically motivated and racist.” The Mail is well-known in the UK for its anti-immigration editorial positions, and is often accused by critics of Islamophobia.

When Marsawa spoke to Mail journalist Nick Fagge in Leicester he seemed sure Sheikh Salah must have got into the country illegally, she said. Later that day, he said he wanted her to know police may visit Sheikh Salah that night. Marsawa told Salah about the journalist’s warning, but they did not take it seriously. However, when Salah returned to the London hotel with his translator that night he was in fact arrested.

Marsawa says Salah has spoken in Germany, France and Ireland in the past with no such trouble. He has also been in the UK on at least four previous occasions, but had then spoken to mostly Muslim and Arab audiences. “They [only] want the Muslims and the Arabs to make charity, to feed people and to be in the mosques,” Masarwa said.

Marsawa explained that Salah represents a large number of Palestinians in Israel, and was also an important leader for the wider Arab world. He is known as a defender of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and a leader of ongoing peaceful resistance against the occupation of East Jerusalem, Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes and evictions from Palestinian neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah.

Possible previous assassination attempt against Salah

The Islamic Movement is a legal political group in Israel that chooses not to participate in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), although a separate southern faction does stand candidates. Salah has three times been elected mayor of his hometown Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Palestinian towns in Israel.

“Sheikh Raed was arrested so many times in his life. Israel was looking for a very single small reason to put him in jail … they would love to arrest him,” Masarwa explained.

In May 2010, Salah was on the Mavi Marmara when it was stormed in international waters by Israeli commandos who killed nine persons. Salah claimed at the time Israeli forces had tried to deliberately assassinate him. One of the victims, Ibrahim Bilgen, bore a likeness to Salah (“Did Israel try to assassinate Sheikh Raed Salah on Mavi Marmara but kill a Turkish engineer instead?,” Ali Abunimah’s blog, 2 June 2010).

In its September conclusions, a fact-finding mission dispatched by the UN Human Rights Council said Ibrahim Bilgen had been “one of the first passengers to be shot” by the Israelis “in a manner consistent with an extra-legal, arbitrary and summary execution” (“Report of the international fact-finding mission to investigate violations of international law …,” UN Human Rights Council Fifteenth Session, A/HRC/15/21, p 29, 37 [PDF]).

UK changing law to accomodate Israeli war crimes suspects

British foreign policy in recent years has been generally regarded as less warm to Israel than in other European states. But the country is moving to change its law to accomodate Israeli war crimes suspects.

Activists and lawyers have tried to use British universal jurisdiction laws to hold accountable high-profile Israeli political and military figures accused of war crimes such as Tzipni Livni, Dan Meridor and Major General Doron Almog. All have had to cancel trips to the UK after judges issued warrants against them.

Both the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and the previous Labor government under Gordon Brown moved to change the law so that the government will be able to stop such prosecutions. In April the changes passed in the House of Commons and the law has now gone to the House of Lords for final approval. Critics say the changes will make it far more difficult to bring anyone accused of serious human rights violations before British courts.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

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