The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.
Amid escalating rocket and incendiary balloon attacks from the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns Gaza-based terror groups that Israel is prepared for “crushing action” if the attacks continue.
“I want to make this clear: we won’t accept any aggression from Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, we took out the top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza [Baha Abu al-Ata], and I suggest to Islamic Jihad and Hamas to refresh their memories,” Netanyahu says today at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem.
“I won’t lay out in detail all our actions and plans in the media, but we’re prepared for a crushing action against the terror groups in Gaza. Our actions are powerful, and they’re not finished yet, to put it mildly.”
BEIRUT — Syrian regime forces are set to retake a key motorway connecting the capital Damascus to second city Aleppo following weeks of battles in the rebel-held Idlib region, a monitor says.
The M5 has been long in the sights of the Syrian government as it seeks to revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.
It connects Aleppo, once Syria’s economic hub, to Damascus and continues south to the Jordanian border and recapturing it would allow traffic to resume between economically vital parts of war-torn Syria.
After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria’s northwest, only a two-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside government control, says the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
Pro-government forces are closing in today on the last sliver in the southwest of the Aleppo province neighboring the Idlib region where they have been battling rebels and jihadists, the monitor says.
“Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman tells AFP.
Since December, Russian-backed government forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria’s last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town from their opponents in the region.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing towards relative safety nearer the Turkish border.
Prime Minister Netanyahu addresses his push to apply Israeli sovereignty over areas of the West Bank, indicating Israel has independently begun mapping territory while appearing to concede that annexation of these areas can’t move forward without US approval.
“In Washington, on my last visit, we made history. We brought an American plan according to which the US will recognize our sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, northern Dead Sea, all the settlements in Judea and Samaria without exception… and a large area enveloping it,” he says at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“This requires precise mapping of these areas, the entire territory,” Netanyahu continues. “The work has begun, the Israeli team has already started, the train set out and this work will be completed.”
Netanyahu insists the Trump administration will eventually back Israel annexation of these areas, but acknowledges it won’t happen until the mapping process is complete — despite his vow to bring the matter for government approval within days of the Trump plan’s unveiling.
“The US and we agreed that when this entire process is completed we’ll bring it to the government [for approval]. But the Americans are saying in the clearest manner: ‘We want to give you recognition and we’ll give you it when the entire process is complete,'” he says.
“Recognition is the main thing. We brought this, I brought this,” the premier adds. “We don’t want to endanger this. We are working responsibility and intelligently.”
Netanyahu also takes a shot at pro-settlement lawmakers he is allied with who are calling for Israel to annex these areas immediately.
“For all the tweeters outside and even inside the government — we did the work, we’ll complete the work and therefore the work has begun and it will be completed, I hope very soon,” he says.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps unveils a short-range ballistic missile that it says can be powered by a “new generation” of engines designed to put satellites into orbit.
The Guards’ Sepahnews website says the Raad-500 missile is equipped with new Zoheir engines made of composite materials lighter than on earlier steel models.
It also unveils Salman engines made of the same materials but with a “movable nozzle” for the delivery of satellites into space.
The Raad is “a new generation missile that has half the weight of a Fateh-110 missile but with 200 kilometers more range,” it adds.
The Fateh-110 is a ballistic ground-to-ground missile first unveiled in 2002. Its latest generation has a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles).
IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami unveils the missile and engines today alongside IRGC aerospace chief Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh.
“The complicated achievements on the bleeding edge of global technology that were unveiled today are our key to entering space,” Salami says.
Salami notes the movable nozzle on the new engine allowed “maneuverability beyond the atmosphere” and amounts to a “leap in modern missile technology.”
The new technologies that make the missiles “cheaper, lighter, faster and more precise” could be applied to all of Iran’s missile classes, he adds.
#IRGC on Sunday unveiled a new missile with a composite engine as well as the new generation of engines for propelling missiles and satellite carriershttps://t.co/IA1pfo9TVG pic.twitter.com/EjOD2XfU8a
— Tasnim News Agency (@Tasnimnews_EN) February 9, 2020
Despite US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman cautioning Israel against unilaterally parts of the West Bank, a prominent settler leader and ally of Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling for the government to honor the premier’s earlier promise to immediately do so.
“Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani again calls on the prime minister to fulfill his commitment to the residents of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley to apply sovereignty before the elections and to do this as early as possible,” a statement from Elhayani, who also heads the Jordan Valley Regional Council, says.
“He [Netanyahu] has public and political backing,” the statement adds.
Oded Revivi, a Yesha Council member and mayor of the Efrat settlement, also weighs in on Friedman commenting that a joint US-Israeli commission be established to draw up maps before annexation.
“When it comes to such an important issue, the international support that the US knows how to produce is important,” Revevi says in a statement.
He adds: “I call on my partners in the settlement leadership to produce a joint working mechanism together with the prime minister so that we’ll come to the Americans as one man.”
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — African leaders condemn US President Donald Trump’s Israel-Palestinian peace plan as illegitimate, taking advantage of an African Union summit to voice solidarity with “the Palestinian cause.”
AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat tells assembled heads of state that the plan unveiled in late January represented the “umpteenth violation of multiple United Nations and African Union resolutions.”
He says that it was prepared without international consultation and that it “trampled on the rights of the Palestinian people,” a line that draws applause in the main hall at AU headquarters.
Trump’s long-delayed peace proposals were immediately rejected by the Palestinians, who have boycotted his administration over its pro-Israel stance.
The outgoing AU chair, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, says in his remarks today that “the Palestinian cause will always be in the hearts and minds of the people of Africa.”
His successor, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, compares Trump’s proposals to regulations in place during his country’s apartheid period.
“As I listened to it and as I read everything that’s written about it, it brought to mind the horrible history that we in South Africa have gone through,” he says.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who regularly attends AU summits, did not travel to Ethiopia this year.
Abbas is represented by PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who reiterates Palestinian leaders’ position that the Trump plan “has no legitimacy whatsoever.”
Six more people on a cruise ship off Japan are found to have the new coronavirus, the Japanese government says today, bringing the number who have tested positive on board to 70.
Test results are still coming in as passengers on the Diamond Princess face a two-week quarantine against the the virus, which has killed hundreds of people, most of them in China.
Japanese authorities had earlier tested 279 people on board the cruise ship, finding 64 of them were infected with the coronavirus.
Aside from infections on board the ship, Japan has reported 26 cases.
The Diamond Princess was quarantined after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong last month was diagnosed with the virus.
There were more than 3,700 passengers and crew on the ship when it arrived off Japan’s coast last week. Dozens have been taken to hospital and around 3,600 people, many of them elderly, are still on board.
Eight to 14 Israelis are believed to be on the ship. The Foreign Ministry said last week that none have been diagnosed with the virus.
— with AFP
The Health Ministry is urging Israelis to reconsider the “necessity” of travel to a number of East Asian countries due to a viral outbreak that began in China.
Among the countries the ministry is cautioning against travel to are Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as the semi-autonomous Chinese cities of Hong Kong and Macau.
“This in addition to the travel advisory given for China,” a ministry statement says.
As of today, 37,500 people globally have been infected by the coronavirus .
In China, there have been 811 deaths and 37,198 confirmed cases on the mainland. In addition, Hong Kong has had 29 cases, including one death. Macao has had 10 cases. Most of the deaths have been in China’s central Hubei province, where illnesses from the new type of coronavirus were first detected in December.
There have been 96 cases in Japan, 40 in Singapore, 32 in Thailand, 27 in South Korea, 16 in Taiwan and 14 in Vietnam.
Some in the Foreign Ministry are not happy with the Health Ministry urging Israelis to reconsider travel to a number of East Asian countries amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“The Health Ministry is causing unprecedented diplomatic damage. Israel is the first in the world to take such a step,” a ministry source tells the Ynet news site.
Settler leader Yossi Dagan is urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to put the Trump administration “in its place” and immediately move ahead with annexing areas of the West Bank, despite US opposition.
“The period of the high commissioner is over,” Dagan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and head of the Samaria Regional Council, says in a statement.
“I call on Benjamin Netanyahu to put our dear friend the US administration in its place. Sometimes even dear friends need to be put in their place and be told that the government is ours, we are a sovereign country and sovereignty will be extended to Judea and Samaria as the public in the State of Israel expects,” he adds, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.
Dagan was one of several leaders who traveled to the US for the January 28 release of Trump’s peace plan, after which Netanyahu said he would bring his plan to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements for cabinet approval within days.
He has since moved away from that promise amid US opposition to Israel annexing these areas before the March 2 elections.
Hamas says it is undeterred by Israeli leaders’ threats of a tough response to continued incendiary balloons and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
“The threats don’t deter the Palestinian nation in the [West] Bank, Gaza or Jerusalem, but only encourage it to continue the struggle,” a spokesman for the terror group is quoted saying by the Kan public broadcaster.
RABAT, Morocco — Thousands of demonstrators flood the streets of the Moroccan capital to protest against a new US peace plan which the Palestinians says favors Israel.
Carrying Palestinian flags, the demonstrators, including local politicians, Islamist sympathizers and trade unionists, march in Rabat chanting “Long live Palestine.”
They call for a boycott of American products, denouncing the United States as “enemies of peace,” and chant “Palestine is not for sale.”
Some of the demonstrators, who wear red-black-green-white scarves in the colors of the Palestinian standard, torch an Israeli flag and speak against any attempt by Morocco “to normalize” ties with the Jewish state.
Morocco has warming but quiet relations with Israel, although they do not enjoy formal diplomatic ties.
Last month US President Donald Trump unveiled a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians which the Palestinians have rejected, saying it is biased in favor of the Jewish state.
After Trump unveiled the plan, the foreign minister of Morocco, a key US ally, said Rabat “appreciates the constructive efforts for peace deployed by the US administration for a durable solution in the Middle East.”
Nasser Bourita went on to reiterate that Morocco’s position is to support the creation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Health Ministry updates its list of countries in East Asia it is urging Israelis to reconsider travel to, removing Vietnam.
There have been 14 people in Vietnam infected by the coronavirus, the same number as in Australia and Germany.
BEIRUT — Two Lebanese soldiers were killed and three others were wounded today in the northeast region of Hermel while pursuing a stolen vehicle, the army says.
The army patrol giving chase “was ambushed and came under fire,” a statement says.
It says one gunman was killed and the driver of the vehicle was arrested, without providing additional details.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab condemns the ambush, saying an attack on the army is an attack on all Lebanese.
“What is required at this moment is to speed up the arrest of the attackers,” he says, without identifying those responsible, in a statement carried by state-run National News agency.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz admits Israel will not be able to move forward with annexing parts of the West Bank until after the March 2 elections.
“This will come after the elections. The historic achievement of Netanyahu is that we are doing this with the blessing of the United States,” Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, tells Kan public radio.
After initially pledging to move forward with annexation in days following the release of Trump’s peace plan, Netanyahu has backed off the promise amid US opposition, but has not explicitly acknowledged it won’t happen until after the elections.
Ministers approve a plan to bring almost 400 Ethiopian Falash Mura to Israel in a measure that will allow them to reunite with family members already living in the country.
While it was initially reported that Israel was planning to fly members of the Falash Mura community from Addis Ababa and Gondar to the Jewish state before the March 2 elections, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declines to commit to that date, saying the government was working hard to bring them as soon as possible.
The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago.
The cabinet approves the measure despite opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who, according to Hebrew media, argued in a legal opinion that the measure could be interpreted as a campaign ploy directed at Ethiopian Israelis just weeks before the election.
Mandelblit also criticized the lack of preparation that went into putting together the plan to bring the 398 Falash Mura to Israel, saying that an insufficient amount of data was provided regarding the number of applicants interested in coming to the Jewish state.
He took a similar stance regarding a measure separately approved by ministers today to establish a committee tasked with probing the police’s internal investigations unit. The attorney general argued that the move could be construed as the product of illegal political horse-trading.
TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian rocket fails to put a satellite into orbit, state television reports, the latest setback for a program the US claims helps Tehran advance its ballistic missile program.
The launch happens at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province, some 230 kilometers (145 miles) southeast of Iran’s capital, Tehran. A Simorgh, or “Phoenix,” rocket can’t put the Zafar 1 communications satellite into orbit, however, due to a low speed, Iranian state TV reports.
The launch had been planned amid celebrations ahead of the February anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program and its nuclear efforts during this time.
Today’s failure comes after two failed launches of the Payam and Doosti satellites last year, as well as a launchpad rocket explosion in August. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
The rocket explosion in August drew even the attention of US President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The three failures in a row raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s program.
The US alleges such satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution calling on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, maintains its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. Tehran also says it hasn’t violated the UN resolution as it only “called upon” Tehran not to conduct such tests.
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz accuses Prime Minister Netanyahu of harming Israel’s diplomatic ties in Jordan, asserting that he is the right man to repair them.
“Unfortunately, last year, after a decade of diplomatic neglect of everything concerning Israel-Jordan relations, we lost for the first time territories that were given to us under this [peace] agreement,” Gantz says in a video statement from the Sea of Galilee.
He is referring to Naharayim and Tzofar, two enclaves along the border that Israel leased from Jordan under the 1994 treaty establishing diplomatic ties.
The areas returned to Jordanian control last year after Amman refused to extend the lease.
“I intend to rehabilitate relations with Jordan and turn them to good, active, secure and continued neighborliness,” Gantz says.
He does not specify how we will improve ties with Jordan. Gantz has vowed to annex the parts of the West Bank after the upcoming elections — something King Abdullah II has warned would negatively impact diplomatic ties — but stressed he will only do so with international backing.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, also takes a shot at Netanyahu over ongoing incendiary balloon and rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
“This absence of complete calm in the south can’t be accepted. Instead of releasing hysterical declarations, the Israeli government should adopt a tough security policy regarding the security violations coming from the south,” he says.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adding insult to injury after Iran’s admission of a failed satellite rocket launch.
“We were notified today that Iran failed in launching a satellite. They are also failing to transfer weapons to Syria and Lebanon because we are operating there all the time, including these days,” Netanyahu writes on Twitter.
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg carry their fight for the Democratic presidential nomination to the nation’s airwaves today as they scrap for votes with just two days to go before New Hampshire’s closely-watched primary.
The 78-year-old Vermont senator and the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came in atop the first contest in Iowa — marred by messy confusion about the result — giving each important momentum as Democrats seek a candidate to take on Donald Trump in November.
Sanders, a leftist whose state borders New Hampshire and who won there by a landslide in 2016, holds a lead in that state in four polls released Sunday, each of which had the moderate Buttigieg in second followed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren then former vice president Joe Biden.
“I think we have an excellent chance to win,” Sanders tells CNN’s “State of the Union,” lining up political talk show appearances before a final push on the ground in the small northeastern state.
With the primary season under way in earnest, some of the earlier collegiality among Democrats has fallen away.
“I am running against a candidate, Pete Buttigieg, among others, who has raised contributions from more than 40 billionaires,” Sanders tells CNN. “Our support is coming from the working class of this country.”
His campaign, based heavily on small donors, says it raised $25 million last month.
Buttigieg, appearing separately on CNN, turns aside the billionaire charge, quipping, “Well, Bernie’s pretty rich, and I would happily accept a contribution from him.”
Turning serious, the 38-year-old Indiana politician adds: “This is the fight of our lives. I’m not a fan of the current campaign finance system, but I’m also insistent that we’ve got to go into this with all of the support we can get.”
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upholds the candidacy of Joint List MK MK Heba Yazbak, overturning a Central Elections Committee decision to bar her from running in the March 2 vote for her alleged support of terror.
Political reactions quickly pour in, after the Supreme Court overrules a Central Elections Committee decision to bar Joint List MK Heba Yazbak from running in the March 2 elections.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh predictably welcomes the court ruling.
“The campaign of political incitement by the extreme right has crashed against legal reality,” Odeh says. “MK Yazbak will continue to the next Knesset and fight for peace, equality, and democracy for everyone.”
Yazbak had come under fire for a pair of pasts Facebook posts, including one that praised Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar.
“A disgrace. [Blue and White chairman Benny] Gantz has no government without the Joint List. After today’s decision, whoever wants Heba Yazbak in the opposition and not the government must vote Likud,” Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party says.
Blue and White voted against Yazbak’s candidacy in the Central Elections Committee.
Joint List MK Heba Yazbak reacts to a Supreme Court ruling upholding her candidacy for the March 2 elections.
“The decision of the Supreme Court again shows that the disqualification requests are part of the incitement circus against me and against the Arab community and its representatives,” Yazbak says in a statement.
“The decision of the Central Elections Committee to disqualify me was a political decision by a political committee,” she adds.
UNITED NATIONS — A reworked Palestinian resolution has dropped its initial condemnation of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, opting for less confrontational language ahead of a UN Security Council vote, a copy obtained by AFP shows.
The latest draft also no longer mentions the United States by name as the plan’s author, and couches its criticism in milder language than in the original.
The changes come as diplomatic pressure mounts ahead of Tuesday’s Security Council vote, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to be on hand for.
The initial draft of the Palestinian resolution, which was presented by Tunisia and Indonesia last Tuesday, charged that the US plan “breaches international law and the internationally-endorsed terms of reference for the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The latest version says the US initiative “departs from the internationally-endorsed terms of reference and parameters for the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict, as enshrined in the relevant United Nations resolutions.”
The draft no longer calls for an international conference on the Middle East “at the earliest possible date,” instead replacing that language with a reminder that such a call was made in a 2008 UN resolution.
It also adds a line “condemning all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction.”
Despite the softer tone, however, it was unclear if the latest version would be enough to avoid a US veto when it comes to a vote on Tuesday.
Rocket alert sirens sound in the city of Sderot and the surrounding Sha’ar Hanegev region, sending thousands of residents rushing to bomb shelters.
There are no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
The military says it is investigating the matter.
— Judah Ari Gross
The sirens that were heard in Sderot and surrounding area were set off by a rocket that seems to have struck an open field, a spokesperson for the Sha’ar Hanegev region says.
There are no injuries or damage caused, the spokesperson says.
The military confirms that one rocket was fired from the Strip toward Israel, but does not comment on its impact site.
The Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson says security forces are searching for the remains of the rocket
— Judah Ari Gross
ROME — Italy calls on Egypt to release a young Egyptian researcher and activist based at Bologna University, saying it had reason to believe the security forces had tortured him.
The incident has revived painful memories of the 2016 disappearance and murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo, a case for which which the Italian authorities are still seeking answers.
Patrick Zaky, 27, a graduate student at Bologna University in northern Italy, was detained late on Friday as he arrived to visit his family.
He was held on a warrant issued in September after he left to pursue his studies, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a prominent rights organization where he is a researcher.
They say he had been charged with “harming national security” and “broadcasting false news” — and that he had been beaten and electrocuted by security forces.
In a statement today, Peppe De Christofaro, under-secretary for education, expresses “great concern” for Zaky.
He had a “well-founded fear that the young Egyptian researcher… is currently suffering arbitrary and unjustified detention and that he is a new victim of violence and abuse from the Egyptian security forces,” he says.
He calls for other European Union states to join Italy in pressing Egypt to release him.
Everything had to be done to protect Zaky’s safety and “avoid a repetition of unacceptable scenes of torture,” he says.
The Australian Parliament is expected to pass a motion calling for Israel to immediately extradite a former school principal wanted on dozens of charges of child sex abuse.
The motion has been introduced by lawmakers from both the government and opposition in the House of Representatives and increases pressure on Israel to end a legal wrangle over Israeli-Australian dual citizen Malka Leifer that has drawn out over six years.
Several government and opposition lawmakers have argued in favor of the motion, but the vote will be held at a later date. No lawmaker has spoken against the motion.
“I say to anyone, both in Australia and Israel, that anyone who is assisting further delays is choosing to help an adult evade consequences after they’ve robbed children of innocence and dignity,” Josh Burns, an opposition lawmaker who proposed the motion with government lawmaker Dave Sharma, tells Parliament.
“Anyone who who is helping Leifer should be held to account as well,” he adds.