The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they happened.

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Turkey arrests al-Qaeda man linked to 2003 bombings of synagogues

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish media reports say a fugitive who was convicted in absentia for involvement in 2003 bomb attacks against two synagogues, a bank and the British Consulate in Istanbul and of membership in al-Qaeda has been arrested.

The state-run Anadolu Agency says the man, identified by his initials Z.C., was arrested Wednesday in a village in the central Turkish province of Cankiri, where he was working as an acting village imam.

The private DHA agency reports that he had escaped to Afghanistan while on trial for his role in the attack. He was later convicted of membership in the al-Qaeda network and sentenced to six years in prison.

The al-Qaeda attacks in Istanbul in November 2003 targeted the HSBC bank, two synagogues and the British Consulate, killing 57 people. In the case of the Bet Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues, the attacks involved two bomb-laden trucks that drove into the buildings and then detonated, killing 23 and wounding over 300.

— with AP

Russia says it’s nearly certain who ordered St. Petersburg bombing

MOSCOW — Russia’s FSB security service says Thursday that it is close to identifying who ordered the bombing on the Saint Petersburg metro this month that killed 14 people.

FSB head Alexander Bortnikov tells reporters that the identity has been “practically established,” Russian news agencies report.

Authorities attribute the attack to 22-year-old Akbarjon Djalilov, thought to be a Russian national born in Kyrgyzstan, who died in the blast.

There has been no claim of responsibility but investigators say they are examining possible links to Islamic State jihadists.

The FSB has detained another man born in Kyrgyzstan on suspicion of helping orchestrate the metro bombing, who admitted to “some involvement” in the crime during a court appearance Tuesday.

Eight other people — all from mainly Muslim Central Asian countries — have also been detained in Moscow and Saint Petersburg over alleged involvement in the attack.

— AFP

Cellcom reduces phone prices following Kahlon tax cut

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s announcement yesterday that the ministry was canceling the 15% purchase tax on cellphones is being felt almost immediately in the market.

The mobile giant Cellcom says today that it will start selling mobile phones at a 15% reduction from Friday, Channel 2 reports. That means a 32-gigabyte iPhone 7 will drop from NIS 3,790 ($1,034) to NIS 3,190 ($870), and the latest flagship phone from Korean maker LG, the G6, will drop from NIS 3,390 ($925) to NIS 2,890 ($789).

One of Cellcom’s chief competitors, Partner, says it will also cut prices by 15% in the wake of the tax’s cancellation, but does not announce specific prices.

Purchasing a mobile phone in Israel is an expensive proposition due to high taxes, including a 17% value-added tax separate from the now-canceled 15% purchase tax, and little competition among importers.

France promises proof Assad regime behind chemical attack

PARIS — France says it will provide proof within days that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime carried out the April 4 chemical attack in Syria that killed at least 90 people.

Speaking Wednesday evening on French TV, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault says: “We will provide proof that the regime did indeed organize these strikes with chemical weapons.”

He says he couldn’t provide evidence now because analysis is still underway but added: “In a few days I’ll be able to provide proof.”

Assad has denied that he was behind the attack. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013.

Speaking Thursday, French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon calls on the United Nations to punish those behind the attack and said “whoever uses chemical weapons should be condemned.”

— AP

Egyptian army says senior IS cleric killed in Sinai

CAIRO — The Egyptian military says Thursday it killed a senior Islamic State cleric and 18 jihadists in airstrikes in the Sinai Peninsula where the extremists are waging an insurgency.

The announcement comes after the jihadists claim a series of attacks, including a shooting near a monastery this week and twin church bombings on April 9 that killed dozens.

Among the jihadists killed is “one of the prominent leaders of the so-called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the head of the religious affairs committee in the group,” the military says, without saying when the strikes occurred.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis was the name used by the jihadists in the Sinai before they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in November 2014 and began calling themselves IS’s Sinai Province.

— AFP

Brazilian Jews to teach about Holocaust at school that flew swastikas

RIO DE JANEIRO — A Brazilian Jewish federation will provide educational support to a private school in the country’s northeast where a classroom was decorated with Nazi flags during a lesson on totalitarian regimes.

Students and history teachers from Santa Emilia School in Recife will visit the Kahal Zur Israel temple, the first synagogue established in the Americas in 1637, to learn about Judaism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the school and the Jewish federation announce in a joint statement on Monday.

The school removed a Facebook post praising the teacher — who also wore a swastika band around his arm like a Nazi soldier — after it drew major criticism, reports the Diario de Pernambuco newspaper.

According to Jader Tachlitsky, Pernambuco Jewish federation’s communication coordinator, school representatives agreed that the tone of the post was inappropriate, but did not agree that the teacher’s methodology was unfortunate and there was no apology.

“The main thing is that the school is open to having the topic worked by us, which means that we can interact with the students, learn what was really learned and have the chance to educate them in a more consistent way on the subject,” Tachlitsky says.

According to Brazilian law, promoting Nazi or Nazi-related propaganda is subject to punishment by a prison sentence of two to five years, plus a fine.

— JTA

Holocaust denial leaflets distributed at Australian universities

SYDNEY — Leaflets denying the Holocaust are distributed on two university campuses in Melbourne, Australia.

The leaflets distributed in recent days begin appearing at the same time as the opening in the city of the movie “Denial,” which portrays the court battle between Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt and Holocaust denier David Irving.

The leaflets tell readers that the “official version” of the Holocaust, which is also portrayed that way in Hollywood, is “demonstrably false.”

The National Chairperson of The Australasian Union of Jewish Students, Isabella Polger, says, “These leaflets are the result of a nationally organized campaign to spread poisonous anti-Semitic conspiracies at our nation’s top universities. They represent an atrocious assault on the dignity of Jewish students.”

The leaflets distributed at Monash University and the University of Melbourne contain slogans such as “the greatest swindle of all time” and the “Holohoax.”

The Australasian Union of Jewish Students has scheduled a meeting at Monash University whose internal security department is investigating the incident.

Melbourne universities were the targets of anti-Semitic leaflets in 2016.

— JTA

Israeli Jewish man questioned by police over praise for Holocaust

An Israeli Jewish man is under investigation for praising the Nazi Holocaust in Facebook posts.

The man, 55, praised Nazi Germany for its genocide of “Ashkenazi” Jews, apparently unaware that the Nazi regime did not limit its mass slaughter to European Jews, but also shipped North African Jews who came under its control to concentration and death camps.

In a statement Thursday, the Israel Police notes that the investigation is “unusual,” and was only launched with the approval of the state prosecution due to the “extraordinarily severe statements” posted by the man and the closeness of the comments to Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be held in Israel starting on the evening of April 23.

Expressing support for the Nazi genocide is illegal in Israel.

Pentagon chief pledges support for Egypt’s Sissi

CAIRO — US Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and top brass in Cairo on Thursday, pledging support for the American ally on his first regional tour.

The brief visit, with Mattis later setting off to Israel, comes after Sissi hit it off with Trump during a White House meeting earlier this month.

Sissi’s visit marked a shift in relations after Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had given the Egyptian leader the cold shoulder for leading the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Egypt's Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhy welcomes US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo on April 20, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP)

Egypt’s Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhy welcomes US Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Ministry of Defense in Cairo on April 20, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AFP)

The meeting “addressed aspects of military and security cooperation between the two countries and ways to further enhance them,” Sissi’s office says in a statement.

Sissi tells Mattis he wants to “strengthen the ongoing military cooperation between the two countries,” it says.

Mattis in turn “reiterated the US’s commitment to reinvigorating these relations and broadening prospects for cooperation,” it adds.

Mattis is now flying to Israel on the next leg of his tour, which started in Saudi Arabia.

— AFP

Cop filmed beating Palestinian truck driver is fired

In a statement, the Israel Police says Thursday that an officer filmed beating a Palestinian truck driver in Jerusalem has been let go.

Moshe Cohen, an officer in the elite Yasam unit of the Jerusalem Police, was suspended immediately after footage of him beating Wadi Joz resident Mazen Shwieki on March 23 was broadcast by Israel Radio. Cohen asked to resign from the force, saying he accepted responsibility and regretted his actions, but after an inquiry into the incident, his superiors refused his resignation request.

“It was decided that in light of the severity of the incident and the evidence [against Cohen], his request to resign of his own volition is rejected and he will be fired,” a police statement says.

The incident, the statement adds, was “anomalous, violent and contravenes all the organization’s values. An officer who behaves in this way has no place in the Israel Police.”

Cohen is also being investigated by the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department.

Israel’s Jews, Arabs prefer to live in separate neighborhoods – survey

A majority of Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis feel comfortable living in Israel as “who they are,” but do not think they should live together in the same neighborhoods, a new survey finds.

The Jewish People Policy Institute, or JPPI, on Wednesday releases its second annual Pluralism Index.

The index, according to JPPI president Avinoam Bar-Yosef, “shows once again that the greatest success of the Jewish state is the integration of Diaspora Jews, from more than 90 different countries, in one thriving society. They wish to live together, form families together, and build a common future.”

“The fact that many Arabs living in the Jewish state define their primary identity as Israeli and feel comfortable and at home in Israel is very encouraging. Having said that, there is still much to be done to ensure full equality,” Bar Yosef says in a statement.

The index also finds that a majority of Jews do think it is wise for secular and religious Jews to live together, but not for secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews to do so. It is the self-identified most secular groups that most object to the idea of living together.

Meanwhile, a significant majority of Muslim Arabs and the vast majority, or more than 90 percent, of Christian Arabs in Israel do not think it is wise for their respective groups to live together, according to the index.

“What is worrying is that what we see here is that in Israel, basically the majority is happy, but they are not ready to live together. So you have a few groups that feel at home here but separately,” Bar-Yosef tells JTA.

— JTA

3 more advanced F-35I fighters to arrive Sunday

Israel’s fleet of F-35I Adir jet fighters is about to grow to five planes. The IDF announces Thursday that it expects three more of the planes to land in Israel on Sunday afternoon, joining the two initial planes that have been operating out of the Nevatim Air Force Base in the south since December.

The new Adirs, the IDF adds, will take part in the traditional Air Force fly-over of the country on Independence Day, which falls on May 2 this year.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most advanced fighter-bomber ever made by the US, is a stealth plane capable of carrying out operations over vast distances.

Israel has committed to buying 50 of the planes at some $100 million per plane.

Israel's first two F-35 stealth fighter jets on their maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Israel’s first two F-35 stealth fighter jets on their maiden flight as part of the Israeli Air Force on December 13, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Iran bans live election debates, warns candidates not to ‘blacken’ country’s image

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s interior ministry says Thursday there will be no live debates in the run-up to next month’s presidential election.

“Based on a decision by the Election Campaign Monitoring Commission, the election debates of the candidates will be broadcast pre-recorded,” says ministry spokesman Seyed Salman Samani.

The commission also releases guidelines for the debates, telling candidates they are not allowed to “blacken the image of the country…or the actions of the executive, administrative, legislative or judicial bodies.”

Live debates have been a hugely popular feature of the last two elections in 2009 and 2013, with many analysts saying President Hassan Rouhani’s performance was key to his surprise victory last time.

The decision appeared to come as a surprise to state broadcaster IRIB, whose deputy head Morteza Mir Bagheri had earlier described the live debates as “the most popular programs” on the station, and the “best way for people to get to know the candidates.”

The heated TV debates in 2009 between hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reformist opponents fired up the electorate and were seen as partly responsible for the post-election unrest that occurred when Ahmadinejad was re-elected amid allegations of vote-rigging.

— AFP

Trial opens for 20 in suspected French terror cell that targeted Jewish grocery

PARIS – Twenty members of a suspected jihadist network thought to have been behind a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery store in 2012 go on trial before a special anti-terror tribunal in Paris Thursday.

The “Cannes-Torcy cell,” named for the towns where its members were based, is suspected of having planned several other attacks, and was considered the most dangerous to threaten the country when it was dismantled in 2012.

The trial opens as France is grappling with fresh fears of jihadist terror attacks, with the police arresting two men Tuesday suspected of plotting an assault just days before a presidential election. Analysts say the Cannes-Torcy network signaled a historic shift in France’s struggle against terrorism, to battling mass attacks by Islamic radicals inspired, or even guided, by foreigners.

A Paris courthouse, with its bulletproof dock, prior to the start of the trial of a jihadist cell known as the "Cannes-Torcy cell," long considered one of the most dangerous in France, whose members targeted police and military installations as well as a Jewish grocery in 2012, on April 20, 2017. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP)

A Paris courthouse, with its bulletproof dock, prior to the start of the trial of a jihadist cell known as the “Cannes-Torcy cell,” long considered one of the most dangerous in France, whose members targeted police and military installations as well as a Jewish grocery in 2012, on April 20, 2017. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP)

Aged 23 to 33, the cell’s members are accused of plotting to stage several attacks on military and civilian targets, and of seeking to join jihadist ranks in Syria. Police arrested two members of the network while investigating a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles in September 2012.

Two masked men threw a grenade into the shop, injuring one person, but the fact that it rolled under a trolley prevented more casualties.

The trial is expected to run until July 7, with most of the accused facing terms of 30 years to life in prison.

— AFP

Gazan cancer patient caught with explosives was duped, husband says

The Gazan woman caught trying to smuggle explosives into Israel hidden in medical containers did not know the content of the containers, her husband says.

Basema Atallah, 55, is undergoing treatments in Jerusalem for colorectal cancer and was given special dispensation to enter Israel from the Hamas-ruled territory for treatment. She has entered Israel some 10 times since July, but on her last trip on Wednesday, Israeli border authorities at the Erez Crossing found explosives in the medical containers she carried with her.

Her husband Ragheb tells AP his wife was unaware that she may have been smuggling anything illegal into Israel.

“Someone asked them to take a bottle of medicine on their way for a patient there,” he says. “The bottle was closed and they did not know what is inside. It seems there was something and this caused disruption,” the husband says Thursday.

Ragheb Atallah says his wife has been released by Israeli authorities and has been given permission again to go to the hospital, but her sister, 57-year-old Ibtessam Eid, who traveled with her, remains in Israeli custody.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in the coastal strip from forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Since then, Israel and Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, have fought three wars.

Despite the hostilities, Israel continues to allow thousands of Gazans to enter its territory for medical care or to travel to neighboring Jordan and other destinations.

— AP and Times of Israel staff

IDF shows off its new F-35I fighters in aerial refueling

The IDF announced earlier today that three more F-35I fighters will arrive in Israel on Sunday, joining the two that already arrived in December. Israel has ordered a total of 50 of the fighters, to be delivered over several years.

As part of today’s announcement, the Israeli Air Force also releases footage of the state-of-the-art stealth fighters soaring through Israel’s skies and conducting a delicate aerial refueling maneuver.

US defense chief lands in Israel, will meet Netanyahu Friday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday morning after the latter lands in Israel today for a two-day visit.

The two will discuss regional challenges, including Iran efforts to dominate the region and its use of proxy fighting forces in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The situation in conflict-ridden Syria, the fight against Islamic State and other terror groups, and the two nations’ security cooperation will also be on the agenda, the PMO says.

Palestinian UN envoy asks Red Cross to intervene in hunger strike

UNITED NATIONS — The Palestinian UN ambassador is asking the International Committee of the Red Cross to intervene in a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners pressing for “legitimate rights” which he says are being denied by Israel.

Riyad Mansour tells the UN Security Council Thursday that the Palestinian Authority government believes “the ICRC can play a positive, facilitating role” to avert “the dangerous consequences of deterioration of this situation.”

Over 1,100 Palestinian prisoners, many convicted of terror attacks, are on a hunger strike to protest what Mansour calls their “inhumane treatment and torture by Israel” and to call attention to over 6,500 Palestinians in Israeli lockups.

Specifically, the prisoners are demanding increased visitation rights, public telephones in the security wards of Israeli prisons and the restoration of their right to earn academic degrees while imprisoned.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Tuesday the government would not negotiate with the prisoners, calling the strike politically motivated and declaring that the prisoners have no legitimate complaints.

— AP and Times of Israel staff

Turkey’s Erdogan says he’ll meet Trump in US in mid-May

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday says he will meet new US leader Donald Trump for the first time as head of state in mid-May in the United States.

“The date has been fixed,” Erdogan tells A News in an interview, saying the trip would be after he concludes a visit to China on May 15. “I will be travelling to China and after China I will be travelling to the United States,” he says.

— AFP

London hotel rejects request to screen film on life of Marwan Barghouti

A London hotel turns down a request to host a private screening of a film honoring Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for the murder of Israeli Jews.

The Palestinian Mission in the United Kingdom had planned to screen “Marwan: A film about the life and struggle of Marwan Barghouti,” at a theater in the May Fair Hotel, the London-based Jewish Chronicle reports.

“We were recently approached by the State of Palestine to host a private screening at the May Fair Theatre. As is usual business practice, we reviewed the request and undertook standard due diligence, following which we have decided to not progress this event any further,” a spokesperson for the Edwardian Hotels London tells the news website Jewish News UK.

The Palestinian Mission says in a statement, according to the Jewish Chronicle, that the film was being screened “to mark Prisoner’s Day in solidarity with the 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, many of whom will start a hunger strike on this day.”

Over 1,100 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails launched the strike last week in a move that coincided with a Barghouti op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why we are on hunger strike in Israel’s prisons.” The Times failed to identify Barghouti as a convicted killer in its identification of the writer, later rectifying the omission with an editor’s note following complaints.

The screening was scheduled to be held Sunday. Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust memorial day, starts that night in Israel.

— JTA

Belgian Jewish leader asks lawmakers not to ‘repeat Nazis’ acts’ in slaughter ban

Amid discussions on limiting ritual slaughter of animals in Belgium, a leader of the country’s Jewish community pleads with lawmakers not to “repeat the Nazis’ acts.”

The statement Thursday by Philippe Markiewicz, president of the Consistoire organization of Belgian Jewry that is responsible for providing religious services, is unusual because Jewish community officials rarely draw comparisons between present-day issues and the Nazi occupation, which remains a sensitive subject in Belgium.

“The last assault on ritual slaughter was in October 1940 under the Nazi occupation because they knew how important it was for Jews,” Markiewicz says during an address in the city of Namur at the Parliament of Wallonia, one of three autonomous regions that make up the federal kingdom of Belgium. “I implore you not to repeat this act,” the Belga news agency quotes him as saying.

Markiewicz speaks to lawmakers during a discussion on a plan to impose new limitations on any slaughter of animals that does not involve stunning – a prerequisite in shechitah, the Hebrew-language name for kosher slaughter of animals, and its Muslim variant.

Many Walloon lawmakers objected to Markiewicz’s allusion to the Nazi occupation, according to the Belga news agency.

On Tuesday, Carlo Di Antonio, the Walloon region’s minister for animal welfare, tells reporters that an agreement on effectively banning such slaughter was reached and will be implemented in June 2018, the Le Vif news website reports.

The move in the Walloon region, which has only a few hundred Jews, follows an agreement from last month that imposes limitations on ritual slaughter in the Flemish region, where half of Belgium’s Jewish population of 40,000 people live. The remaining 20,000 live in the Brussels region.

— JTA

Israeli military officials: US gave 2-hour warning before striking Syria

The United States gave Israel two hours’ warning before it fired on a Syrian airbase from which a chemical attack had been launched on Syrian civilians the day before, on April 4, according to Israeli military officials.

Senior Israeli military officials also tell reporters at a briefing Wednesday that Syrian President Bashar Assad still has up to three tons of chemical weapons, despite agreeing to eliminate his country’s stocks of chemical weapons in 2013, The Associated Press reports.

Assad has denied responsibility for the April 4 attack on Idlib, an area in southern Syria held by rebels in the country’s six-year civil war. At least 90 civilians were killed in the attack using sarin gas.

Israel has remained on the sidelines of the civil war, though it has treated Syrian injured, both government troops and rebels, on the border and responded when rocket and artillery fire from the fighting has landed on Israel’s side of the Golan Heights.

— JTA

Zara removes skirt printed with image resembling Pepe the Frog hate symbol

The international clothing chain Zara removes from its website and stores a distressed denim miniskirt printed with an image that resembles the “alt-right” hate symbol Pepe the Frog.

The skirts are withdrawn on Tuesday following a social media backlash, The New York Times reports.

“The skirt is part of the limited Oil-on-Denim collection, which was created through collaborations with artists and is only available in selected markets,” a Zara spokesman tells the Times. “The designer of the skirt is Mario de Santiago, known online as Yimeisgreat. There is absolutely no link to the suggested theme.”

Santiago is a Spanish artist who told Zara that the frog face “came from a wall painting I drew with friends four years ago.”

In September, the Anti-Defamation League added the internet meme Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that has become a popular symbol for white supremacists, to its online hate database. Images of the frog, variously portrayed with a Hitler-like mustache, wearing a yarmulke or a Ku Klux Klan hood, proliferated in hateful messages aimed at Jewish and other users on Twitter in the weeks leading up to its inclusion in the online hate database.

— JTA

Man killed, two others wounded in Lod shooting

One man is killed and two other people are wounded in a shooting in Lod.

Immediate reports suggest the shooting is criminal, and not terror related.

The wounded include a woman, 70, and a man, 38, who are both in moderate condition and hospitalized at Asaf Harofe Hospital with bullet wounds in their upper torsos.

Police say they have launched an investigation.

Activists hold mass pot protest outside Knesset

Hundreds of Israelis gather on a grassy hill overlooking the Knesset on Thursday to smoke marijuana in an act of communal defiance of current laws.

Sitting in small groups on mats shaded by trees in the Rose Garden just across from the Knesset, participants light up as the clock struck 4:20 p.m. for the local version of the traditional worldwide April 20 pro-marijuana events, known as “420” rallies.

In the afternoon, revelers are mostly men in their early 20s but organizers expect thousands more people to join the event, set to continue till the early hours of Friday.

Police do not intervene.

Last month, the government approved a plan partially decriminalizing marijuana use in public in favor of fines and treatment, but cannabis advocates are calling for full legalization.

— AFP

Report: Prosecutors seek indictment of Sara Netanyahu

State prosecutors are expected to recommend indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara over allegations of financial improprieties in her management of public funds spent on the Netanyahus’ residence in 2015, Channel 10 television news reports Thursday.

According to the report, the final decision to indict rests with State Attorney Shai Nitzan and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.