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PM notes ‘significant decline’ in Palestinian attacks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notes a “significant decline” in Palestinian attacks on Israelis, after six months of near-daily violence that has cost more than 200 lives.

Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu says ministers will be presented with data from the Shin Bet domestic security agency that show a “significant decline in the scope of terrorist attacks.”

Netanyahu attributes the trend to Israeli moves to lower the “success rate” of attacks, alongside “very strong actions against the incitement of the Palestinian public.”

Shin Bet published in recent days its statistics on Palestinian attacks for March, counting 123 against Israeli civilians and security forces in Israel, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Most of the attacks in the tally were firebombings, but the data also covered stabbings, car-ramming attacks, gunfire, improvised bombs and grenades as well as projectile fire from the Gaza Strip.

February saw 155 attacks, compared with 169 in January, and in December the Shin Bet counted 246 attacks, twice the number for March.

AFP

Soldier indicted for murder

The southern district prosecution files an indictment against Omar Abu Sbeit, an IDF soldier, accusing him of murdering a man in January 2015 in a case of mistaken identity.

He, along with another man who has yet to be apprehended, were allegedly involved in a fight and then later thought they had spotted one of the men they had fought with.

Abu Sbeit then opened fire on the car with his IDF-issued M-16 rifle and fled, the indictment says.

Burj Khalifa builder plans taller viewing tower

The developer of the world’s tallest building in Dubai says it plans to build an even taller tower in the Mideast commercial hub.

Emaar Properties Chairman Mohamed Alabbar says the new observation tower would be “a notch” taller than the Burj Khalifa. He wouldn’t say by how much.

Unlike the Burj Khalifa, the new tower designed by Spanish-Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava Valls will not be a traditional skyscraper but more of a cable-supported spire containing observation decks, gardens and possibly other tourist facilities.

It is due to open by the time Dubai hosts the World Expo in 2020.

AP

Shin Bet says most Palestinian attackers motivated by despair

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office details some of the information that the Shin Bet provided ministers in a briefing this morning on the ongoing wave of violence.

The last few months have seen a “significant decline” in the number of attacks, including in the number of “significant” attacks, the Shin Bet says: 20 “significant” attacks in March as opposed to 78 in October.

The security service attributed the decline to Israeli efforts to foil attacks, along with “effective deterrent action” and “determined activity to counter Palestinian incitement.”

Shin Bet says Israel’s counterterror activity has left the Palestinian public feeling that the “escalation is pointless.”

In a stark departure from the line maintained by Netanyahu – that incitement and Islamist radicalism are the prime drivers of violence – it says that most of the attackers were motivated by “personal issues,” notably “a dire personal or financial situation.”

Only some of the attacks were carried out due to “nationalistic motives,” the ministers hear in the briefing.

Among the attacks foiled, the Shin Bet says, were 25 kidnapping attacks and 15 suicide attacks. It notes Hamas has been trying to carry out such attacks.

Earthquake rattles Pakistan’s capital, other cities

A powerful earthquake rattles Pakistan’s capital and other cities across the country.

Pakistani official Arif Ullah tells The Associated Press that the magnitude-7.1 quake is centered near Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan. Germany’s GFZ Research Center for Geosciences set the quake’s magnitude at 6.5.

In Islamabad, terrified residents flee their homes and offices as buildings sway. Television footage shows people praying in public.

Tremors are felt as far away as the Indian capital, New Delhi.

AP

Boy hit by bus, critically hurt in Jerusalem

A 10-year-old boy is critically injured when he is hit by a bus on Jerusalem’s Shmuel Hanavi Street.

MDA paramedics administer administer CPR to the boy before taking him to the Hadassah Mount Scopus Hospital.

Netanyahu seeks to ban radical sheikh from Jerusalem

During the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu takes aim at the radical Islamist preacher Sheikh Raed Salah, saying Salah is has been seeking to “inflame” Jerusalem’s volatile Temple Mount compound ahead of Passover.

“I demand that security officials and the justice minister take steps to keep him away” from the Mount,” he says. “This man should have been in prison already.”

Sheikh Raed Salah, center, marches with supporters outside the Jerusalem District Court on October 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sheikh Raed Salah, center, marches with supporters outside the Jerusalem District Court on October 27, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Salah leads the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which the Israeli cabinet banned in November as an organization with terrorist links. The group rejects the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians and boycotts national elections on the grounds that they legitimize the Jewish state.

Salah was sentenced late last year to 11 months in prison for incitement to violence and racism over an inflammatory sermon he delivered in 2007 in Jerusalem. Salah has appealed the sentence. He has previously served terms for similar offenses.

— Times of Israel staff contributed

IDF officer cleared of rock-thrower’s killing

IDF officer Colonel Yisrael Shomer, who shot and killed a rock-throwing Palestinian teenager near Ramallah last July, will not be charged, the military prosecution announces.

While noting there was “a professional error in the manner in which the shooting was performed,” it says the officer was reacting in a “patently operational” situation and is therefore not criminally liable.

Colonel Yisrael Shomer (IDF spokesperson)

Colonel Yisrael Shomer (IDF spokesperson)

The investigation of Shomer was launched when video surfaced showing him shooting Muhammad Ali al-Kasbeh, 17, while the teenager was fleeing the scene after hurling a stone at his vehicle. Kasbeh later succumbed to his injuries.

The army says that Shomer was justified in opening fire under the circumstances of the incident and notes that while he aimed at al-Kasbeh’s legs, he was firing while on the move and shot inaccurately.

Shomer serves as commanding officer of the Binyamin Brigade in the West Bank.

According to a Channel 2 TV report, Shomer contended during the investigation that he feared he was in imminent danger when his vehicle was attacked and that he operated according to army protocol. He consulted his attorney before meeting with army investigators.

— Times of Israel staff contributed

Boy hit by bus in Jerusalem dies

The 10-year-old boy who was hit by a bus and critically injured earlier today in Jerusalem has died, reports say.

Iran says missile program not negotiable

Iran’s foreign minister says the country’s missile program is not up for negotiation with the United States.

The missile program and “defense capabilities of the Islamic Republic of Iran are not negotiable,” says Mohammad Javad Zarif after meeting with his Estonian counterpart, Marina Kaljurand.

He adds that if Washington is serious about defensive issues in the Middle East, it should stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to a question in a joint press briefing with his Omani counterpart Yousuf bin Alawi after their meeting in Tehran, February 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to a question in a joint press briefing with his Omani counterpart Yousuf bin Alawi after their meeting in Tehran, February 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday the US and its partners were telling Iran that they were “prepared to work on a new arrangement to find a peaceful solution to these issues.” He said Iran first had to make it clear to all involved that they were prepared to cease provocative ballistic missile launches and tests.

Zarif also hints regional US allies are among those quietly supporting the extremist Islamic State group.

“The US needs to view regional issues more seriously than raise baseless and threadbare allegations against Iran,” says Zarif. “Mr. Kerry should ask US allies where the Islamic State’s arms come from.”

AP

Netanyahu tells ministers and MKs to stay off Temple Mount

During the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reiterates to ministers that they are prohibited from entering the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem during Passover, according to Haaretz.

He tells them that Palestinian incitement is on the rise ahead of the festival and urges them, as well as Knesset members, to refrain from entering the volatile holy site so as not to provoke further tensions.

Lawyers retract naming of Dershowitz in sex case

Lawyers who named Alan Dershowitz in a filing naming men alleged to have had sex with underage girls now say it was a mistake to have done so.

The joint statement Friday by Dershowitz, Bradley Edwards and Paul Cassell say the sides have dropped dueling lawsuits arising out of the case.

“Edwards and Cassell acknowledge that it was a mistake to have filed sexual misconduct accusations against Dershowitz; and the sexual misconduct accusations made in all public filings (including all exhibits) are hereby withdrawn,” said the statement, released by Jeffrey Streitfeld, who was appointed by a Florida court to mediate the case.

The claim arose in a 2014 filing by Edwards and Cassell that questioned the validity of 2008 deal that allowed Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire, to serve about a year in prison under favorable conditions for soliciting a minor for prostitution.

Dershowitz, who as Epstein’s lawyer helped negotiate the 2008 deal, was named as one of several men, including Britain’s Prince Andrew, who also had sex with the women procured by Epstein. Dershowitz, a famed constitutional lawyer, retired Harvard law professor and a prominent Israel defender, denied the claim, as did Andrew.

Dershowitz said Edwards and Cassell had not performed due diligence in filing the claim and said they should be disbarred. They sued him for defamation and Dershowitz countersued.

Dershowitz was able to produce records showing he could not have been present when the claimed sex took place.

JTA

IDF announces drill around Hadera

The IDF announces a drill in and around the coastal city of Hadera, north of Tel Aviv, between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement, a spokesperson says military and security vehicles will be traveling the roads around the city.

The statement says the drill was planned in advance and is geared toward “maintaining the forces’ fitness and vigilance.”

Ashkelon mayor to stand trial — report

Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni, arrested in January on suspicion of rape, corruption and bribery, will be indicted, Channel 10 reports.

The report quotes the prosecution as saying that the material collected by police “not only amasses suspicions but also evidence that poses a reasonable chance of a conviction.”

Mayor of Ashkelon, Itamar Shimoni, on July 28, 2014. (Flash 90)

Mayor of Ashkelon, Itamar Shimoni, on July 28, 2014. (Flash 90)

According to suspicions, Shimoni and his associates accepted bribes totaling hundreds of thousands of shekels from contractors and building developers in exchange for municipal approvals for various construction projects in the southern coastal city.

Shimoni also allegedly used NIS 500,000 ($127,000) in kickbacks to buy the silence of a former female municipal employee whom he sexually assaulted over a period of time.

At least four women have accused Shimoni of sexual assault, and one has accused him of rape.

— Times of Israel staff contributed

Clinton takes Sanders to task over Gaza comments

Hillary Clinton blasts fellow Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders over comments he made saying Israel reacted with disproportionate force during its military campaign in the Gaza Strip in 2014.

“Hamas provokes Israel. They often pretend to have people in civilian garb acting as though they are civilians who are Hamas fighters,” she tells CNN’s State of the Union, according to Politico. “It’s a very different undertaking for Israel to target those who are targeting them. And I think Israel has had to defend itself, has a right to defend itself.”

Sanders came under fire last week from Israeli officials and the ADL after he suggested in an interview with the New York Daily News that Israel had killed 10,000 innocents in Gaza in 2014. The former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, now a Knesset lawmaker with Kulanu, even accused him of spreading a “blood libel.”

Sanders, for his part, doubles down on the contention that Israel reacted disproportionately in Gaza, after acknowledging over the weekend that he got the death toll wrong.

“Of course we’re going to support Israel, but you cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people,” Sanders tells CNN. “We will not succeed to ever bring peace in that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect.”

Sanders: Who is Michael Oren?

In his interview with CNN’s “State of the Union,” Bernie Sanders reiterates that Israel’s response during the 2014 war in Gaza was “disproportionate.”

“Israel has a 100% — and no one will fight for that principle more strongly than I will — has the right to live in freedom, independently and in security without having to be subjected to terrorist attacks,” he says.

“But I think that we will not succeed to ever bring peace into that region unless we also treat the Palestinians with dignity and respect, and that is my view.”

Asked about criticism from Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US who termed his comments a “blood libel,” Sanders asks, “Who is Mr. Oren?”

Told who Oren is, Sanders says, “I see. And he’s attacking me for a statement I did not make.”

He says that he is determined to take a “more balanced position” on Israel and than other American politicians, rejecting the notion that he is more critical of Israel.

“Whether you’re Jewish or not Jewish, I would hope that every person in this country wants to see the misery of never-ending war and conflict ended in the Middle East,” he says. “It’s a difficult issue and good people have tried to deal with it for years.”

He says that while the US must support Israel, “you cannot ignore the needs of the Palestinian people in Gaza right now: poverty, unemployment, their community has been decimated. You can’t ignore that fact. And you can’t just be only concerned about Israel’s needs. You have to be concerned about the needs of all of the people of the region.”

Two missing Chabad girls found unharmed near Orlando

Two 16-year-old girls from the Chabad-Lubavitch community who went missing during a Shabbat afternoon walk while on a class trip in Orlando, Florida, are found in a nearby area of densely wooded swampland.

The girls, identified as Rivka Moshe and Brocha Katz, both students of Bais Chana High School in Miami, left a resort in Kissimmee where the class was staying at 3 p.m. Saturday and did not return, school officials told Lubavitch news outlets.

On Saturday night, police officers from the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office began a search of the area with helicopters and infrared sensors and dogs, COLLive, the Chabad Lubavitch Community News Service, reported. Florida State Police reportedly took over the investigation early Sunday morning.

It took rescue teams more than an hour on Sunday morning to reach the girls, who were only several thousand feet from the resort, Chabad.org reports. The girls were being reunited with their parents, who traveled to Orlando from Miami after they were reported missing.

JTA

Soldiers come under fire near Gaza

Shots were fired at IDF soldiers on the northern Gaza border, the IDF says.

No one was injured.

Troops are searching the area for those responsible, the army says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Kasich warns Trump or Cruz candidacy spells disaster for GOP

John Kasich is painting a gloomy picture for Republicans on all levels if either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz is the party’s presidential nominee in November.

The Ohio governor is citing “great concern” in the party — and not just about the White House race, but what happens if “we get blown out” in that contest.

Under that scenario, Kasich tells CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “we would lose seats all the way from the statehouse to the courthouse” — meaning races all down the ballot.

He thinks that’ll be “a big consideration” at the GOP convention this summer. Kasich’s hope for the nomination is based on the idea that no candidate wraps up enough delegates before the convention — and that he can emerge there.

AP

B’Tselem blasts IDF for absolving officer in Palestinian’s death

The B’Tselem human rights group comes out against the IDF’s decision to clear Col. Yisrael Shomer of all charges in the shooting of a Palestinian teen rock-thrower.

The IDF prosecutor’s decision to close the case against Shomer “displays the willingness of the investigatory system to ignore the rules of engagement and the law, in order to absolve security forces of responsibility in illegally killing Palestinians,” B’Tselem says in a statement.

The organization brought the case to light last summer, when it released a video showing the colonel shooting Muhammad Ali al-Kasbeh, 17, as the teenager was fleeing the scene after hurling a large stone at his vehicle. Kasbeh later succumbed to his injuries.

This decision “sends an illegal message to soldiers in the field that it is allowed, and even desirable, to shoot to kill a Palestinian rock thrower, even if he runs away and no longer presents a threat,” B’Tselem says.

Judah Ari Gross

PM says current counterterror efforts like Defensive Shield op

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equates his government’s efforts to tackle attacks from the West Bank to Operation Defensive Shield, a major campaign to quash terrorism during the Second Intifada.

“In 2002,” Netanyahu says at an event commemorating Israel’s deceased heads of state, prime minister Ariel Sharon “decided to embark on Operation Defensive Shield, which received broad public support, to destroy the terror infrastructures in Judea and Samaria.”

He says that Palestinians learned during that operation that “we don’t hesitate to penetrate deep into the territory in order to bring back security to the citizens of Israel.”

Netanyahu asserts that his government acts according to the same principles, “entering everywhere, whenever it’s needed, west of the Jordan.”

He alludes to the marked drop in the number of Palestinian attacks over recent months, but cautions that Israelis shouldn’t take that drop for granted.

“This drop isn’t guaranteed,” he says. “We can anticipate the possibility of severe terror attacks at any moment, but the fact is that we are acting against terror hotbeds, so that the terror we are contending with is mostly terror [carried out by] individuals.”

Peres not invited to event feting past heads of state

Former prime minister and president Shimon Peres wasn’t invited to the event commemorating Israel’s deceased heads of state in Jerusalem, Channel 2 reports.

The organizers of the event say it was “an oversight” and that they will investigate and draw conclusions.

Embattled Ukrainian PM Yatsenyuk resigns

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announces his resignation in the wake of a months-long political crisis that has paralyzed the government and frozen the release of vital Western aid.

“Having done everything to ensure stability and make a smooth transition of power possible, I decided to step down from the post of prime minister of Ukraine,” the pro-Western leader says in a weekly television address.

The tough-talking prime minister’s decision comes barely two months after he survived a bruising parliamentary no-confidence hearing in which lawmakers took turns takings jabs at the job he has done since February 2014.

Yatsenyuk, 41, says President Petro Poroshenko’s party has already nominated parliament speaker Volodymyr Groysman to succeed him and that he will not stand in the way.

“From today onward, I see my goals in a broader light than just heading the government,” he says.

AFP

IDF general accused of rape suspected of obstructing probe

Military Police are examining new suspicions against Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris, to the effect that he tried to obstruct the rape investigation against him.

Buchris made contact in recent weeks with one of his two accusers, according to the suspicions.

Brig.-Gen. Ofek Buchris seen during a visit to Tel Hashomer army base, November 22, 2010. (Flash90)

Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris seen during a visit to the Tel Hashomer army base, November 22, 2010. (Flash90)

Palestinians hope for Obama change of heart with UN vote

With President Barack Obama in his last months in office, the Palestinians are hoping he will follow up his breakthroughs with Iran and Cuba with a push for their cause as well.

The first step is reintroducing a United Nations Security Council resolution the United States vetoed back in 2011 seeking “accountability” for Israeli West Bank settlement building.

In an interview, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki says the hope is that Obama, freed of reelection concerns, will break with American protocol and refrain from vetoing it this time around.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki holds a joint press conference with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh (not seen), in the West Bank city of Ramallah. December 06, 2012 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

“There are indications that President Barack Obama may try to put a basis for a new era regarding the Palestinian-Israeli issue before leaving the White House after his achievements in Iran and Cuba,” Malki says. “Thus the US administration may surprise Israel by voting in favor of a Palestinian resolution or at least not to use the veto against it.”

The draft, which Malki says stresses the “violence and terrorism of the settlers,” still needs approval from Arab nations before the Palestinians would consider presenting it. But the move signals a renewed effort to get back on the agenda.

AP

General’s attorney rejects obstruction claims

The chief IDF defense lawyer, Col. Asher Halperin, rejects suspicions, floated earlier this evening, that his client Brig. Gen. Ofek Buchris tried to obstruct the rape investigation against him.

“Any claim to an obstruction of the investigation by Buchris is utterly baseless,” he says, “and he hasn’t been investigated for obstruction or any similar suspicion.”

Halperin says news of the suspicions, to the effect that Buchris tried to contact one his two accusers, are part of a “defamation campaign against him.”

Iraqi forces fight to retake chemical attack town

Iraqi Shiite paramilitary forces have launched an operation to retake a town from which the Islamic State group launched a chemical weapons attack that killed three children, commanders say.

“The operation aims to liberate Bashir, after we succeeded several days ago in cutting off supplies to (IS) in the Bashir area,” says Abu Ridha al-Najjar, who is leading the operation.

Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, the commander of Furqat al-Abbas, one of the groups involved, also confirms that the operation has begun.

Najjar says that nine pro-government fighters were killed and 60 wounded in clashes with IS on Sunday.

The jihadist group fired rockets suspected of carrying a mustard agent last month from Bashir on Taza Khurmatu, another town in the northern province of Kirkuk.

The attack killed three children, wounded a large number of people and pushed thousands more to flee Taza out of fear that it would be repeated.

AFP