The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they unfolded.
Netanyahu: Israel to ‘intensify’ action in Syria following US pullout
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the IDF will “intensify” its activity in Syria to prevent Iranian entrenchment following the withdrawal of American forces from the country.
Netanyahu is speaking at a joint summit with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus, a day after US President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.
Netanyahu says Israel will “continue to act very aggressively against Iran’s attempts to entrench in Syria,” adding that it will do so with “complete support and backing from the United States.”
Israel has clandestinely carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria over the course of the seven-year civil war to prevent Iranian entrenchment near the border and to keep strategic weaponry from reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Putin: Trump ‘right’ to withdraw troops from Syria
President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the US decision to withdraw its forces from Syria.
Speaking at his annual news conference, Putin says he agrees with US President Donald Trump, who said yesterday that the defeat of the Islamic State group removes the need for the US military presence in the country.
Putin reaffirms the long-held Russian argument that the US presence in Syria is illegitimate because it hasn’t been vetted by the UN Security Council or approved by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. Putin adds that “if the US decided to withdraw its contingent, it has done the right thing.”
Russia is a key ally of Assad, and its military intervention beginning in 2015 turned the tide of the war in his favor.
The Russian leader says it remains to be seen if the US carries out its intention, noting Washington’s repeated promises to end its 17-year presence in Afghanistan.
Iran blames US, Israel after Albania expels diplomats
Iran is blaming the United States and Israel for Albania’s expulsion of two Iranian diplomats accused of engaging in criminal activities that threatened the small European country’s security.
The official IRNA news agency quotes Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying “Albania has become an unintentional victim of the United States, Israel and some terrorists groups.”
He says the US and Israel are working to destroy relations between Iran and European countries, and that Albania should not allow others to dictate its relations with Tehran.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton praised Albania in a tweet for expelling “the Iranian ambassador, signaling to Iran’s leaders that their support for terrorism will not be tolerated.”
Trump thanks Albania for expelling Iranian diplomats over plot to attack Israelis
US President Donald Trump thanked Albania for expelling the Iranian ambassador and another diplomat for allegedly engaging in illegal activities that threaten Albania’s security.
Trump’s letter to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, dated December 14, thanked him “for your steadfast efforts to stand up to Iran and to counter its destabilizing activities and efforts to silence dissidents around the globe.” His letter said the expulsion “exemplifies our joint efforts to show the Iranian government that its terrorist activities in Europe and around the world will have severe consequences.”
The US Embassy in Tirana published the letter on its Facebook page today.
Albania’s Foreign Ministry said yesterday the two diplomats were expelled for “violating their diplomatic status” following talks with other countries, including Israel.
Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the expulsions. The official IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying that “Albania has become an unintentional victim of the United States, Israel and some terrorist groups.”
Private Top Channel television reported that the Iranians were suspected of illegal activities related to a World Cup qualifying match between Albania and Israel two years ago.
Earlier this year, a court in neighboring Kosovo sentenced nine Albanians for planning a foiled attack against the Israeli soccer team during the match in Albania.
Brussels Jewish museum shooting suspect appears in court
A man accused of shooting dead four people at a Jewish museum in Belgium in 2014 after fighting alongside jihadists in Syria appears in court this afternoon amid high security, as preparations began for his trial next month.
French national Mehdi Nemmouche, 33, is accused of “terrorist murder” for gunning down the four with a handgun and an assault rifle in the Brussels Jewish museum in May 2014. His alleged accomplice, Nacer Bendrer, 30, also appears in court.
Nemmouche has said he was involved but did not carry out the killings. His lawyer Sebastien Courtoy says his client “is here to proclaim his innocence.”
Asked whether Nemmouche would testify, Courtoy says that “if circumstances require it, he will speak. He’s not mute.”
Security camera video from the May 24, 2014, killing shows a shooter wearing a baseball cap coolly gun down two people at the museum entrance, then pull out an assault rifle to spray the others from a doorway.
It was over in 82 seconds and the killer strode away. An Israeli couple visiting the city and two museum workers were killed.
Israeli gets 6.5 years for beating Sudanese migrant to death
A 22-year-old Israeli man convicted of beating a Sudanese migrant to death in Petah Tikva two years ago is sentenced to six and a half years in prison for the killing.
As part of an agreement with the Central District Attorney’s Office, Dennis Bershivitz plead guilty to manslaughter over his brutal November 2016 assault of Babikir Ali Adham-Uvdo, who succumbed to his wounds days later.
A second man involved in the fatal assault has been convicted of aggravated assault, but he was a minor at the time of the attack, and will serve in a juvenile detention facility. The court did not release details of his sentencing.
German court won’t try 97-year-old Nazi death camp suspect
German court says it won’t put on trial a former guard at the Nazis’ Majdanek death camp who was charged with being an accessory to murder, arguing that the 97-year-old is too sick to face court proceedings.
The Frankfurt state court cited a comprehensive medical assessment of the suspect that was delayed repeatedly by spells in a hospital. It says an expert determined that the man, who was charged in August 2017, wouldn’t be able to follow proceedings “in an appropriate way” and a trial would pose a “significant danger” to his life.
The suspect, whose name hasn’t been released, was charged for allegedly serving at the camp in Nazi-occupied Poland between August 1943 and January 1944. Prosecutors allege that the man worked as a guard there as a member of the SS’s Death’s Head division.
In particular, he was accused of supporting Operation Erntefest, or Operation Harvest Festival, on Nov. 3, 1943.
On that day, at least 17,000 Jewish prisoners from Majdanek and others who were being used as forced laborers in and around the city of Lublin were shot in ditches just outside the camp. Music blared from the Majdanek loudspeakers to mask the sound of the killings.
Egypt says it killed 8 Islamists planning Christmas attacks
Egypt says security forces have killed eight militants and detained four more who planned attacks on minority Christians during the upcoming holiday season.
In a statement, the Interior Ministry says the 12 belonged to “Hasm,” which it says is an armed faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group removed from power in 2013.
It said two of the eight killed were separately shot dead after they opened fire on security forces storming two residences in Cairo. The remaining six were killed in a shootout as they tried to flee Cairo.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, did not say when the events took place.
The Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, was overthrown by the military after his yearlong rule inspired mass protests.
Trump says US does not want to be ‘policeman of the Middle East’
The United States does not want to be the “policeman” of the Middle East, US President Donald Trump tweets, as he defends his controversial decision to pull US forces out of Syria.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight….,” he tweets.
Trump adds: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the US leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us.
“I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”
Israel: Gunmen behind Ofra and Givat Assaf shootings are brothers
An Israeli security official identifies the Palestinian gunman who killed 2 soldiers in a shooting attack near the Givat Assaf outpost last week as Asem Barghouti, the brother of Salih Barghouti, who is suspected of carrying out a drive-by shooting outside the nearby settlement of Ofra days earlier.
Salih Barghouti is believed to opened fire at a bus stop near Ofra, injuring 7 Israelis, including a pregnant woman who later lost her baby. He was killed by Israeli security forces during his arrest last week.
The official confirms the Barghoutis’ identities to The Times of Israel in a text message.
Israeli troops have have launched extensive searches for the gunman who fled the scene after shooting dead IDF Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef, 20, and Cpl. Yosef Cohen, 19, as they waited for a bus outside Givat Assaf.
— Adam Rasgon
Germany says US withdrawal from Syria could harm fight against IS
Germany is expressing concern that the US decision to withdraw troops from Syria could undermine efforts to combat the Islamic State group.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says in a statement that “the abrupt change of course by the American side comes as a surprise not only for us.” He said that while IS has been pushed back, “the threat is not yet over.”
Maas says “there is a danger that the consequences of this decision could damage the fight against IS and endanger the successes that have been achieved.” He points to “underground structures” and continued activity in eastern Syria.
US officials say that President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 US troops out of Syria, as the president suddenly declared victory over IS.
IDF begins sealing Hezbollah attack tunnels
The Israeli military begins sealing shut the attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon.
“We are continuing in our efforts to thwart those terror tunnels. We are now using special means in order to specially neutralize these tunnels,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says.
An army spokesperson says additional details about how it is “neutralizing” these tunnels will be released shortly.
— Judah Ari Gross
Syria Kurds vow to keep up anti-IS fight unless Turkey attacks
Syrian Kurdish forces say they will keep fighting the Islamic State group in eastern Syria unless they come under Turkish attack, after their US allies announced their withdrawal.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stressed they would freeze operations if Turkey attacked, as widely expected after a pullout of US forces which have served as a buffer.
“The Hajin battles continues,” says Mustefa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated force, referring to the main front against IS in the Euphrates Valley.
“The US decision is just a decision and does not yet affect the situation on the ground,” Bali tells AFP.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting was continued today.
Travelers face chaos as London’s Gatwick airport still shuttered over drones
London Gatwick Airport is forced to suspend all flights today due to drones flying over the airfield, causing misery for tens of thousands of stuck passengers just days before Christmas.
Flights into Gatwick, south of the British capital, were diverted to other airports while passengers waiting to take off faced grueling delays.
Bosses at #Gatwick say the airport will be closed until at least 4pm this afternoon, when they'll reassess the situation. Most of the 110,000 people meant to fly today will face disruption. #HeartNews pic.twitter.com/Ye3RImGLbL
— Heart London News (@HeartLondonNews) December 20, 2018
Gatwick is the eighth-busiest airport in Europe and sits behind Mumbai as the world’s busiest single runway air hub.
A cat-and-mouse manhunt is under way to catch the drone operator.
Home in southern Israel hit by apparent errant fire from Egypt
A house in southern Israel is hit by bullets that were fired, apparently accidentally, from Egypt, the IDF says.
No injuries are reported, but some damage is caused.
“The IDF takes these types of incidents seriously. The event will be investigated,” the military says in a statement.
קרוואן בכפר הנוער ניצנה שבדרום, נפגע מקליעים שנורו ככל הנראה ממצרים וזלגו לשטח ישראל. ההערכה היא כי מדובר בירי שבוצע במסגרת תרגיל של צבא מצרים. לא היו נפגעים באירוע @bokeralmog pic.twitter.com/QqXdRUyfXj
— חדשות עשר (@news10) December 20, 2018
— Judah Ari Gross
Turkey, Iran vow to work closer on Syria after US announcement
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani vow to work more closely to end the fighting in Syria.
But the two leaders make no comment on US President Donald Trump’s shock announcement that he was pulling US troops out of the war-ravaged nation.
“There are many steps that Turkey and Iran can take together to stop the fighting in the region and to establish peace,” says Erdogan, without elaborating, at a joint news conference with Rouhani in Ankara.
“Syria’s territorial integrity must be respected by all sides. Both countries are of the same opinion regarding this,” Rouhani says in translated remarks.
The two leaders’ meeting had been arranged before Trump’s announcement about the US pullout, a move already welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier today.
US ambassador to Israel pledges support for Mediterranean pipeline
The US ambassador to Israel says the United States “wholly supports” plans for a pipeline that would transport east Mediterranean gas to Europe.
David Friedman is speaking in southern Israel at a joint summit between the leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus. He calls the pipeline project “of great importance for the stability and prosperity of the Middle East and Europe,” and urges all countries in the region to ensure its success.
American Ambassador in Israel David Friedman on Trilateral Meeting 🇬🇷 🇮🇱 🇨🇾 pic.twitter.com/7zSXmBjVQ6
— Spiros Sideris (@Sp_Sideris) December 20, 2018
The three countries are among the partners in the $7 billion project, which is expected to take six to seven years to build. Israel and Cyprus hope that exporting their offshore reserves will transform their economies and diversify Europe’s energy supply.
The leaders offered no details of the pipeline’s construction timeline.
2 Israelis injured in spate of West Bank attacks are released from hospital
Two Israelis injured in West Bank terror attacks earlier this month are released from a Jerusalem hospital, while other casualties are still recovering.
One of those released from the Shaare Zedek Medical Center on is Amichai Ish-Ran, who sustained three bullet injuries in his leg during last week’s shooting attack near the settlement of Ofra.
Ish-Ran’s wife Shira, who was critically injured in the shooting and whose baby, delivered by C-section after she was shot, later died, is still recovering.
The second person going home today is a 24-year-old woman who was moderately injured on Sunday when rocks were pelted at her car on Route 60 by suspected Palestinian terrorists.
Judge refuses to dismiss sex assault charges against Weinstein
A US judge refuses to dismiss sexual assault charges against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, and set the next hearing in the case for March.
“We are obviously disappointed that the charges were not dismissed today,” Weinstein’s attorney Ben Brafman tells reporters after a brief court hearing in Manhattan.
Judge James Burke set the next hearing in the case for March 7.
Weinstein, public enemy number one of the #MeToo movement, could face life in prison if convicted of the charges.
IDF soldier stabbed, beaten by Palestinian last week released from hospital
IDF soldier Naveh Rotem who was injured in an attack near West Bank settlement of Beit El last week is released from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital.
The 21-year-old soldier was stabbed and hit in the head with rock by a Palestinian assailant at an IDF outpost near Ramallah, where Israeli forces were searching for an assailant who committed a shooting attack.
He was hospitalized in serious condition, unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator. Doctors said he was in life-threatening condition.
Hamas-affiliated TV channel stays on air despite announcement
The Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV is still on air even though it announced earlier this week that its broadcast would stop this evening due to financial woes.
Hamas Politburo chairman Ismail Haniyeh declares in a statement that Al-Aqsa TV’s broadcast will not be halted. He also says a “clear and direct decision” was made to keep the channel on air.
— Adam Rasgon
US indicts Chinese government hackers over attacks in 12 countries
The US Justice Department announces fresh indictments of Chinese government hackers who allegedly targeted scores of companies in a dozen countries, which US officials said showed Beijing had not fulfilled its pledge to stop such actions.
In an operation coordinated with US allies in Europe and Asia, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says the move was being made to rebuff “China’s economic aggression.”
“We want China to cease its illegal cyber activities,” Rosenstein says.
PLO hosts Breaking the Silence delegation in Ramallah
The PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society is hosting a delegation of Israeli activists from the left-wing organization Breaking the Silence in the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
According to the official Palestinian Authority news outlet Wafa, the Israeli delegation is being briefed on the committee’s activities and the positions of the Ramallah-based Palestinian government.
The Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society was set up by PA President Mahmoud Abbas in December 2012, after the PA won non-member observer status at the United Nations.
Erdogan slams US Iran sanctions, vows to boost ties to Tehran
Turkey’s president has again criticized US sanctions on Iran and vows to continue to cooperate with Tehran.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes the comments at a joint news conference with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Erdogan says Turkey aims to increase bilateral trade with Iran to $30 billion from the current $11 billion.
US President Donald Trump pulled America out of the 2015 nuclear deal Iran struck with world powers in May and re-imposed sanctions. Turkey was among the US allies allowed to continue purchasing Iranian oil as long as they work to reduce imports.
Erdogan says: “The US [sanctions] put regional safety and stability into danger and we do not support them.”
He adds: “We will continue to stand by the brotherly Iranian people.”
IDF soldier hit by car near Gaza border dies of injuries
The IDF soldier who was critically injured in a car accident near the Gaza border last night, has succumbed to his injuries, according to the army spokesperson.
Sgt. Yarin Karovi, 20, was hit by a car late last night on Route 232 near the entrance to the Gaza-area Kibbutz Mefalsim.
After US, Britain also accuses China of cyberespionage
The British government accuses China of conducting a “widespread and significant” campaign of cyberespionage against the UK and its allies.
The Foreign Office says a group known as APT 10, acting on behalf of the Chinese Ministry of State Security, carried out “a malicious cyber campaign targeting intellectual property and sensitive commercial data in Europe, Asia and the US.”
It says the group “almost certainly continues to target a range of global companies, seeking to gain access to commercial secrets.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says China’s actions “go against commitments made to the UK in 2015 and as part of the G20 not to support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property or trade secrets.”
The UK announcement came as US officials unsealed an indictment against two Chinese citizens accused of cyberespionage.
France says IS not defeated, troops to remain in Syria
A senior French official says France does not “share the assessment” of US President Donald Trump that the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria is over.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, says that French President Emmanuel Macron phoned Trump earlier this week to “tell him to continue the fight against” IS.
The official says Macron told him the withdrawal, if “made too quickly, would affect not only stability in the region but also the security of the people and the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
Yesterday, US officials said that President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 US troops out of Syria, as the president suddenly declared victory over IS.
Netanyahu says he discussed Syria with Trump
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked with US President Donald Trump on the phone Thursday about the US military withdrawal from Syria.
According to a statement from Netanyahu’s office, the two leaders discussed “ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against Iranian aggression.”
Earlier today, Netanyahu said Israel would increase its activity in Syria against Iran following the US decision to withdraw forces from the country.
Netanyahu rejected Moscow offer for joint Russian-US Syria deal — report
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reportedly offered Israel a joint US-Russian deal to address the buildup of Iranian troops in Syria.
According to Channel 10 news report, Patrushev made the offer to Israel’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat during a meeting on September 13, days before and Israeli airstrike in Damascus led to the downing of a Russian spy plane, damaging bilateral ties.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the deal, the report says.
Israeli defense officials told the TV channel that Russian officials requested Jerusalem to serve as an intermediary between Moscow and Washington, in a bid to improve their ties with the US.
On official said Russians asked Israel to “open the door for them in Washington,” for dialogue with US President Donald Trump.
German police step up airport security over terrorism fears
Police stepped up security at airports in southwestern Germany, amid concerns that extremists may have tried to scope out operations at Stuttgart airport.
German news agency dpa and public broadcaster SWR report that security officials are investigating four people, including at least one with possible ties to the Islamist scene.
In a tweet, federal police say flights shouldn’t be affected by the “robust” police presence at Stuttgart airport. Additional officers were also deployed to other, smaller airports in Baden-Wuerttemberg state — Friedrichshafen, Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden and Mannheim — as a precaution.
SWR reports that two of the suspects, a father and son, were spotted taking pictures at France’s Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris last week.
PM’s office welcomes expulsion of Iran’s envoy to Albania over plot to attack Israelis
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praises Albania’s expulsion of its Iranian ambassador over an alleged plot to attack Israelis during a soccer game.
“Important news from Albania today. The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, expelled the Iranian ambassador from Tirana. By doing so, Prime Minister Rama has sent a clear message to the Iranian radical Islamic regime – that plotting terror attacks has a cost,” Netanyahu’s office posts on Twitter.
A subsequent tweet adds that “Israel stands with Albania as it stands with every country that sees the Iranian regime for what it is: the greatest threat to world peace and security.”
Explosions heard in northern Israel as IDF begins destroying Hezbollah tunnels
The sounds of explosions heard in the western Galilee this evening are part of the military’s efforts to destroy the attack tunnels dug into northern Israel from Lebanon, the army says.
“An announcement was given ahead of time to the heads of the relevant local councils and residents of the area,” the IDF says.
The army says people nearby can expect to see and hear increased military activity as its efforts to destroy the tunnels continue into the night and through the coming days.
— Judah Ari Gross
Senators urge Trump to reverse Syria pullout
A bipartisan group of senators is urging President Donald Trump to abandon his plan to withdraw US troops from the war in Syria.
Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Jack Reed of Rhode Island say they have growing support for a resolution urging the president to change his strategy.
Trump abruptly decided to withdraw troops against the advice of top military and diplomatic leaders. The move blindsided lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Graham says Trump’s decision is being celebrated by leaders in Russia, Iran and terrorist camps of the Islamic State group.
He adds: “We are all worried about the consequences.”
Graham says a big bipartisan group would support Trump if he reversed course.
IDF investigating shots fired near Ofra settlement
The IDF says shots were fired near the West Bank settlement of Ofra this evening, and troops are searching the area for the gunmen.
The army statement says soldiers responding to the reports of a possible shooting fired back at the gunfire coming from the nearby village of Ein Yabrud.
The IDF says troops have set up roadblocks and are searching for the gunmen.
No injuries are reported.