The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they occured.

Police arrest 27 in sweep of firearms smuggling ring

Police carry out over two dozen arrests this morning in a sweep targeting a firearms smuggling ring in the Arab towns of Taibe and Tira.

Officers find Kalashnikov and M-16 rifles, submachine guns, handguns and ammunition, according to Israel Radio.

The ring was not linked to terror groups, officials say. The people involved bought weapons from Palestinians in the West Bank and sold them to criminal organizations in Israel, primarily in Arab towns in the north.

All 27 suspects are being taken to remand hearings today at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court.

Poll: Clinton has edge over Trump on range of issues

Americans trust Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton more than Republican businessman Donald Trump to handle a wide range of issues — from immigration to health care to nominating Supreme Court justices.

Even when asked which of the two candidates would be best at “making American great” — the central promise of Trump’s campaign — Americans are slightly more likely to side with Clinton, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

In this April 6, 2016, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In this April 6, 2016, photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO Convention in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The survey reveals potential trouble spots for Clinton, too. Trump is nearly even with her on whom Americans trust to handle the economy, which voters consistently rank as one of the top issues facing the country. Clinton is trusted more on the economy by 38 percent of Americans, while 35 percent side with Trump.

Twenty percent of Americans say Clinton represents their views very well on matters they care about, while 23 percent say somewhat well. Just 15 percent say Trump represents their views very well and 14 percent say somewhat well.

— AP

Egypt’s oldest secular university honors Saudi monarch

Egypt’s oldest secular university grants King Salman of Saudi Arabia an honorary doctorate for his “unique services” to Arabs and Muslims.

Cairo University bestows the honor on the Saudi ruler Monday, the fifth day of a visit clouded by opposition to Cairo’s intention to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Riyadh.

The kingdom pledges billions of dollars in aid and investment to Egypt. But activists and some experts have condemned plans to transfer sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, with some calling it a sell-off.

Egypt’s government says the islands belong to Saudi Arabia, and that Riyadh asked Egypt to take charge of their security in 1950 because it feared an attack by Israel.

— AP

Germany mulling Turkish demand to prosecute comic

Germany is considering a request from Turkey to prosecute a TV comedian who wrote a crude poem about the Turkish president.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert says Turkey sent a diplomatic note making “a formal request for criminal prosecution” of Jan Boehmermann.

German comedian Jan Böhmermann in Rostock, 2014. (Wikipedia/Jonas Rogowski/CC BY-SA 3.0)

German comedian Jan Böhmermann in Rostock, 2014. (Wikipedia/Jonas Rogowski/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Boehmermann read the poem on ZDF television two weeks ago to illustrate what he said wouldn’t be allowed in Germany, contrasting it with another channel’s satirical song that also poked fun at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

While the German government defended the song as legitimate free speech, it has strongly distanced itself from the poem.

Seibert told reporters on Monday that officials would take several days to decide whether to allow prosecutors to proceed in the case, but stressed Chancellor Angela Merkel holds free speech in high regard.

— AP

Syria truce threatened as jihadists push offensives

Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels push offensives around northern, central and coastal Syria on Monday, triggering a spike in violence that could threaten a truce ahead of peace talks, a monitoring group says.

The Islamic State (IS) group also takes back control of the town of Al-Rai near Turkey, which rival rebels had captured last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

Neither the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front nor IS is included in a truce brokered by the United States and Russia that came into force on February 27.

But the fact that rebels are fighting alongside al-Nusra in such a broad offensive, while regime forces push back, sparks concerns over the durability of the shaky truce.

“Al-Nusra and allied rebel groups are waging three synchronized offensives” on front lines in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman tells AFP.

A military source confirms that an offensive was under way.


Abbas quietly establishes constitutional court to bolster rule

Reuters reports on a new move by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that could help solidify his rule even as Palestinian politics braces for a succession battle.

… Abbas has quietly established a constitutional court that analysts say concentrates more power in his hands and may allow him to sideline the Islamist group Hamas in the event of a succession struggle.

The nine-member body, which will have supremacy over all lower courts, was created without fanfare by presidential decree on April 3 and will be inaugurated once its ninth member is sworn in at a ceremony on Monday, officials said.

Critics say the body is packed with jurists from Abbas’s Fatah party and risks deepening Palestinian political divisions. Fatah says it is Abbas’s right to create the court, which it says is independent of the 81-year-old president….

Abbas’s decision comes at a time of worsening splits between Fatah and Hamas and as questions are raised about what will happen when the president steps down or if he were to die in office without a successor.

Abbas … was elected to a four-year term as president in 2005. But new elections were not held in 2009 and he continues to govern by decree. Parliament has not sat since 2007.

Dubai’s Islamic authorities issue fatwa against Wi-Fi theft

Dubai’s top religious authorities say that stealing Wi-Fi from your neighbor would not be proper Islamic conduct.

That’s according to a religious edict — known as a fatwa — from Dubai’s Islamic Affairs & Charitable Activities Department. It is available online on the department’s website on Monday as a response to a question asked by an anonymous reader.

The edict says: “There is nothing wrong in using the line if your neighbors allow you to do so, but if they don’t allow you, you may not use it.”

The fatwa matches others issued by other regional clerics in recent years.

Dubai’s Islamic Affairs & Charitable Activities Department answers a variety of online questions. They range from prayers and religious matters to modern issues like cosmetic surgeries and illegally downloading movies.

— AP

American Bar Association former chiefs push for Garland vote

Fifteen former American Bar Association presidents are joining the push to urge Republicans to consider US President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, the Jewish jurist Merrick Garland.

In a letter to Senate leaders, the legal advocates argue that the GOP blockade is injecting politics into the courts in a way that “materially hampers the effective operation” of the judiciary.

The group calls Garland “one of the most outstanding judges in the country” and says the Senate should give him a hearing and a vote.

Judge Merrick Garland at the White House listening to President Barack Obama announce his nomination to the Supreme Court, March 16, 2016. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Judge Merrick Garland at the White House listening to President Barack Obama announce his nomination to the Supreme Court, March 16, 2016. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images via JTA)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley say they won’t consider Garland because an election-year hearing would be too political.

In the letter, the lawyers argue “there is no election-year exception” to the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities in the Constitution.

— AP

Litzman talks emergency preparedness, junk food with WHO chief

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman meets with World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan today in Jerusalem to discuss integrating Israel’s emergency preparedness capabilities into an international aid system, according to a statement from Litzman’s office.

The two discuss emergency preparedness and health promotion initiatives, including Chan’s own push on healthy eating.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman meets with World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan, April 11, 2016. (Courtesy)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman meets with World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan, April 11, 2016. (Courtesy)

“Our activities in the field of health promotion are of utmost importance,” Chan says, according to the Hebrew-language statement from the Health Ministry.

“I know you are a partner in my initiative to combat junk food,” Chan is quoted as saying.

3 killed in attack on Russian police station

Two militants are killed and a third blows himself up in an attempt to attack a police station in southern Russia on Monday, police say, adding that no police officers or civilians were hurt.

The identity of the militants who attacked the police station in the town of Novoselitskoye in the Stavropol region is not yet clear.

The Stavropol region is close to the North Caucasus, where an Islamic insurgency has simmered for years. In Dagestan, the center of the insurgency, many of the bombings and attacks have targeted police and other officials.

Dagestan also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for the Islamic State group, with hundreds estimated to have traveled to Syria to join IS forces there.

— AP

Israel wants to tax Google, Facebook, Amazon sales to Israelis

Tech giants Google, Amazon and Facebook may soon start paying value-added and other taxes in Israel.

Many major tech companies maintain large R&D facilities in the country. While the state reaps the rewards of income taxes on the salaries they pay in Israel, other taxes, especially value-added tax on sales of products or online ad services, are not collected. The corporations’ overseas listing and the difficulty in ascertaining the geographic location of a business activity conducted online placed these companies outside the bounds of existing Israeli tax regulations.

In a document published Monday, the Tax Authority lays out new rules for taxation of overseas companies offering services to Israelis, such as the online advertisements targeting Israeli audiences on Google and Facebook.

Among the new rules: a company will be considered to have a permanent presence in Israel — and thus subject to value-added tax and other obligations — if it has an online presence targeting Israeli consumers, has representatives seeking to find Israeli customers or has a web presence tailored to the Israeli market.

Sick Gazan lioness finds new home in West Bank

A lioness in the zoo in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah is moved today to a zoo in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.

According to Israel Radio, Palestinian officials asked for Israel’s assistance in the move, which requires transporting the animal through the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, and through Israeli territory.

The eight-year-old, 200-kilogram (441-pound) lioness is sick, officials say, noting that the Tulkarem zoo is better equipped to care for her.

Animated music video ‘Ma’agalim’ makes waves

Popular American blogs highlight a touching new music video by the Israeli band Jane Bordeaux.

The song, “Ma’agalim,” or “cycles,” is sung in Hebrew, making the compliments the digitally animated video has garnered from international audiences all the more remarkable.

“Congratulations for this amazing piece of art. Which language is it?” asks one commenter on YouTube.

“It’s a beautiful, cleverly animated journey,” says Gizmodo.

“This is really wonderful to behold: the animation really conveys a nice story along with the music, and the scene changing as it revolves is really cleverly done,” writes the site’s Andrew Liptak.

Iceland’s Pirate Party ready to board ship of state

Iceland’s Pirate Party, founded in 2012 as a marginal protest group, is now unexpectedly in a position where it could seize power in a country fed up with the political and financial establishment.

Recent public opinion polls show the party with 43 percent of voter support, with many Icelanders furious to discover that hundreds of their rich and powerful countrymen were named in the so-called Panama Papers leak which exposed hidden offshore dealings around the world.

The Pirate Party, a libertarian movement campaigning for more transparency in politics as well as Internet freedom and copyright reform, is modeled on a Swedish namesake launched in 2006.

“We can’t predict whether (voter support) will stay like this or not, but what we can see is that people like our style, our approach,” Asta Gudrun Helgadottir, one of three Pirate Party members to hold a seat in parliament, tells AFP.


PM: ‘Dozens’ of strikes made against Hezbollah weapons transfers

On a visit to observe a major training exercise by reservist paratroopers on the Golan Heights, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the troops Israel must be able to rely on solely on its own capabilities to defend itself in an increasingly dangerous region.

“We have Daesh [Islamic State] across the fence here,” he says, indicating the nearby border with Syria, “Hezbollah across the fence here and there,” in Syria and Lebanon, “Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and global jihad and Daesh in the Sinai.”

Surrounded on several fronts by jihadist groups, “we are proud that in a stormy, turbulent Middle East, we have managed to preserve a relative quiet in the State of Israel, and relative security,” he says.

“We’re acting when we need to act, including here, across the border, in dozens of attacks, to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining destabilizing weaponry. We’re acting on other fronts, close and far, but we’re doing it intelligently.

“If we have to go to battle,” he tells the soldiers, “and that possibility lies before us, and that’s why you’re here, it’s because we could not prevent the dangers to Israel in another way.”

He adds: “This is our country. We must protect it, and no one will protect it except us. You see the earthquake around us, and you see nations and states erased, and if someone expects that someone will come to his aid, that’s not going to happen. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we have to be able to defend ourselves, by ourselves.”

Croatia’s Jews to boycott Holocaust commemoration

Croatia’s Jewish community confirms on Monday it will boycott an official Holocaust commemoration to protest the government’s alleged inaction to curb the surge of neo-Nazi sentiments in the country.

The Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Communities of Croatia says it will hold its own remembrance at the Nazi-run World War II death camp Jasenovac on April 15, a week before the ceremony that is to be attended by government officials.

Jewish committee officials accuse Croatia’s new right-wing government of ignoring open public resurgence of anti-Semitism, including pro-Nazi slogans chanted by Croatian fans during a soccer match between Croatia and Israel last month.

Tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies died in death camps run by the Nazi puppet state of Croatia during WWII. Some 30,000 Jews are estimated to have been slaughtered during the existence of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, most of them in the Jasenovac camp, which is known as the Croatian Auschwitz.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic says Croatia should unite “over the fundamental values of the society, in this case over the commemoration of the death of the innocent Jasenovac victims.”

— AP

Obama calls Libya his ‘worst mistake’

US President Barack Obama says the biggest mistake of his presidency was the lack of planning for the aftermath of the fall of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with the country spiraling into chaos and grappling with violent extremists.

Reflecting on his legacy in a Fox News interview aired Sunday, Obama says his “worst mistake” was “probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”

Last month, Obama made a searing critique of British Prime Minister David Cameron and former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy for their roles in the bombing campaign they led in Libya.

Cameron became “distracted” and Sarkozy wanted to promote his country during the 2011 NATO-led military intervention, Obama said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine.

Since the downfall of Gaddafi, who was killed in a popular uprising, Libya descended into near-anarchy, ruled by rival militias vying for power while the Islamic State group has gained influence in the country.

Obama also reflects on some of the best moments of his tenure as president — due to end in January — in the Fox News interview.

“Saving the economy from a great depression” was his biggest accomplishment, he said.

As for the best day in the White House?

“The day that we passed health care reform,” Obama says.


UN delivers food aid by air drop to besieged Syrian city

A UN agency has used parachutes to air drop food aid to a Syrian city under siege since March 2014.

The Rome-based World Food Program says the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, its local partner, collected 22 of 26 pallets dropped Sunday from a chartered aircraft for the hungry in Deir el-Zour, eastern Syria. WFP is working to discover what happened to the other four pallets.

WFP says the aid, including beans, chickpeas and rice, is enough to feed 2,500 people for one month. WFP says more than 200,000 people in Deir el-Zour desperately need humanitarian assistance. More airdrops are planned.

The aircraft flew from Jordan.

WFP calls airdrops “always a last resort.” In February, technical problems caused some pallets to miss the drop zone, and some parachutes failed.

— AP

Abbas cuts PLO funding for PFLP terror group

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine says Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has stopped allocating funds to it from the PLO’s coffers.

The PLFP is the second-largest political group within the PLO, but unlike the largest group, Fatah, which Abbas leads, the PLFP, a Marxist group that calls for the complete destruction of Israel, is considered a terrorist organization by the US and EU.

Zulfikar Shiverjo, a member of the PLFP’s central committee, tells the Pan-Arab news site al-Ain that the Palestinian Authority leader did not specify why the funds, which total $70,000 a month, would no longer be transferred.

Shiverjo speculates that the PA president is striking back at the PLFP for its opposition to some of his policies, though he did not specify which ones.

The PLFP has been critical of Abbas for the PA’s ongoing security coordination with Israel.

— Dov Lieber

45 Israeli beaches to open early for Passover vacation

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri says he has ordered the early opening of dozens of beaches along Israel’s Mediterranean coast in order to ensure that families can visit the beaches safely while schools are closed during the Passover holiday that begins next week.

Beach season officially begins May 9, when the ranks of lifeguards and cleaning crews are bolstered to accommodate higher summertime traffic on the beaches..

But Deri decided to move that date up to April 22, the start of the holiday, at 45 of the nation’s busiest beaches.

“Have fun and stay safe,” he says on Twitter.

Stanford student who said talk of ‘Jewish control’ isn’t anti-Semitic quits Senate race

A member of Stanford University’s student senate who argued it is “not anti-Semitism” to claim Jews control “the media, economy, government and other social institutions” says he will not run for reelection.

In a statement published April 8 in the student newspaper the Stanford Daily, junior Gabriel Knight says that “my continued presence in the Senate race has become a distraction from the larger ASSU elections and has made it difficult for students to meaningfully discuss campus issues.”

Knight says in the statement of his remarks at the April 5 meeting, which was debating a proposed resolution on anti-Semitism: “I never intended to be hurtful and am saddened by and apologize for the fact that I was. Nevertheless, I hope that this week’s events and my decision to end my campaign do not encourage or substantiate threats to free discussion.”

His remarks come during a debate over language in the proposed resolution, which offers guidelines for defining anti-Semitism and calls on the student governmental body to oppose anti-Semitic activities and fund anti-discrimination education.

Knight also said, “Questioning these potential power dynamics, I think, is not anti-Semitism. I think it’s a very valid discussion.”


Ahava sold for $77 million to Chinese investors

The Israeli cosmetics firm Ahava will be fully acquired by a Chinese investment group for $77 million.

The Fosun Group on Sunday night in Jerusalem signed an agreement to purchase the Dead Sea skin care products company, the Israeli business daily Globes reports.

Last month, the company confirmed plans to open a plant in Ein Gedi. It is not known if the new plant eventually will supplant the current factory in Mitzpeh Shalem in the West Bank.


Over 2 million Brazilian Christian ‘followers’ of Israeli tourism on Facebook

The number of Brazilians who have “liked” Israel’s Ministry of Tourism two Facebook profiles in Portuguese exceeds 2 million.

Israeli officials in Brazil say the achievement is the result of a strategy that puts a strong focus on countries like Brazil, which has one of the world’s largest Christian populations.

Today, the ministry’s “Holy Land Spirit” profile dedicated to evangelicals has nearly 1.22 million followers, and the number of Catholic followers of the “Holy Land Pilgrimage” page is over 1.17 million. Evangelicals make up 22 percent and Catholics 65 percent of Brazil’s population of 204 million. A former Portuguese colony, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world.

“Because everything in the Bible happened in Israel, nothing is more natural than to pay attention to this [Christian] market,” says Renata Cohen, general director of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in Brazil, in an interview with O Globo newspaper on Thursday.

Israel received some 60,000 Brazilian tourists in 2015.

Brazil is home to some 120,000 Jews.


First Jewish gay marriage held in Latin America

The first Jewish same-sex wedding ceremony in Latin America is celebrated at a Buenos Aires synagogue.

Victoria Escobar, 36, a convert to Judaism, and Romina Charur, 35, are married on Sunday evening at NCI Emanu El Temple in the Argentine capital. Some 300 guests attend the ceremony, which is officiated by Rabbi Karina Finkielstein.

Escobar and Charur entered the synagogue together and the rabbi led them to the huppah. Less than one hour later, Finkelstein read in Hebrew from the ketubah, or marriage contract, that consecrated the wedding.

The couple were married in a civil ceremony in 2014.

Argentina was the first country in Latin America to approve same-sex marriages, which have been legal since July 2010.

The assembly of NCI last month unanimously approved a request to hold the same-sex wedding, calling it “another major step in the full recognition of all religious rights for all members of the community,” NCI Emanuel and the LGBT organization Judios Argentinos Gay (Jewish Argentinian Gays), or JAG, said in a statement, which said the wedding would be the first same-sex Jewish religious marriage in Argentina and Latin America.

The decision was made under the guidelines of the 2006 Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which approved same-sex marriages for the movement.

NCI-Emanu El belongs to both the Conservative and Reform movements.


Police reveal arrest of 4 Jewish terror suspects

Four Jewish Israelis, including two minors, are being held on suspicion of terror attacks against Palestinians, it is revealed Monday.

The two minors, ages 16 and 17, are suspected of “security transgressions against Palestinians,” security officials say.

One was arrested on April 5. The second was arrested today.

One adult suspect, identified by police as Dana Shneur, was also arrested on April 5 on suspicion of setting a Palestinian’s vehicle on fire, conspiring to commit a crime and being a member of an illegal organization.

The fourth suspect is identified as Pinhas Shandorfi. He was arrested April 5. No details were offered about the suspicions against him.

All four have their remand extended today by one week, until April 18.

A court-imposed gag order prevents the publication of further details.

Israel to release young female Palestinian prisoner

The Israel Prisons Service says today it has approved the early release of a 12-year-old Palestinian girl who confessed to planning to carry out a stabbing attack in a West Bank settlement.

Prisons Service spokesman Assaf Librati says authorities have decided to release the girl on April 24 — six weeks before her scheduled release. He says the decision was made because of her “young age.”

The case put Israel’s military justice system in a difficult spot and has drawn attention to the dual legal systems in the West Bank — one for Palestinians and one for Israelis.

The girl was arrested February 9 outside a West Bank settlement with a knife hidden in her shirt and later pleaded guilty to attempted manslaughter under a plea bargain. She was sentenced to 4.5 months in prison.

Last week, her family appealed to the IDF and prison officials to free her early, citing her age.

“Prison is not a place for a small child,” said Abeer Baker, one of the girl’s lawyers. “If it was a Jewish girl, she wouldn’t stay in prison for even one hour because it is forbidden according to the Israeli law.”

Under Israeli law, Israeli citizens must be 14 or older to serve time in prison. Palestinians in the West Bank are under a separate military legal system that allows imprisonment from 12 years of age.

— AP

5 rockets fired from Syria land in Turkish town

Turkey’s state-run news agency says five rockets fired from Syria have landed in a Turkish border town, wounding at least four people.

The Anadolu Agency says the rockets hit the town of Kilis on Monday and at least one of them damaged a house.

The incident comes just days after two people were wounded in Kilis after a rocket exploded near a park, forcing authorities to evacuate schools in the area.

— AP

Hebron soldier blames media for manslaughter prosecution

A soldier who killed a disarmed Palestinian assailant says he’s being hounded by army prosecutors because “they’re scared of the newspapers.”

The soldier shot and killed a Palestinian man, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, in Hebron on March 24, minutes after al-Sharif stabbed and moderately wounded a fellow soldier.

He was arrested that day and now faces charges of manslaughter in an IDF military court.

On Monday, Channel 2 releases transcripts from the Military Police questioning of the soldier, in which he holds to his defense — that he believed al-Sharif was wearing an explosive vest at the time — and lashes out at his accusers.

Al-Sharif wore “a large, furry coat, on a sunny, very warm day. I made a difficult decision in a split second. I cocked the weapon, told people to get out of the way, and fired,” he tells the investigator in the transcript.

“I want to ask a question. If there had been, in fact, an explosive vest, and it detonated, what would have happened? How many dead? They would have asked why no one thought to verify that he was neutralized. That’s what I did.”

Asked to explain why he was being prosecuted, and why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, among others, called his actions immoral, he says: “Because they’re scared of the newspapers and of what the world will say, to wash clean the hands of the IDF by claiming the soldier didn’t behave properly.”

The investigator cites the soldier’s company commander, who claims he told him shortly after the shooting that “I shot because he deserved to die.”

“That’s fine,” the soldier tells the investigator. “I don’t remember it but if I said it, that’s logical that a terrorist who comes to murder must die.”

“First you said, ‘deserves to die,’ then you said, ‘must die,'” notes the investigator.

“That isn’t the same thing?”

“It isn’t the same thing.”

Asked if he was satisfied with his behavior, he says, “If I’d known that this is what they’d do to me, I wouldn’t have joined the army.”

Jordan’s Abdullah to pay for Holy Sepulcher restoration

Jordan’s King Abdullah II says he will personally pay the estimated $3.4-million cost for the restoration of the endangered tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

“His Majesty King Abdullah has issued a Royal Benefaction (makruma) to provide for the restoration of Jesus’ Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, at His Majesty’s personal expense,” the Jordan Times reports.

The Royal Court said in a statement that it has “informed the Jerusalem Patriarchate of His Majesty’s makruma [benefaction] in a letter sent to His Beatitude Kyrios Kyrios Theophilos III, Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and All Palestine and Jordan.”

The patriarch “commended the generosity of His Majesty [who] has always been, and shall remain, the faithful Guardian and Custodian of the Christian and Muslim Holy Sites in Jerusalem. … His Majesty King Abdullah embodies in deed, and not only in word, the shared living of Muslims and Christians all over the world and particularly in the Holy Land,” emphasizing the Hashemites’ “unique historic role in the preservation of both Christian and Muslim Holy Sites in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories.”

Patriarch Theophilos also said that this “continuing Jordanian Hashemite patronage has been an indelible source of support for all the churches in the Holy Land and all the Christians in the East.”

The New York Times reported last week that “the 206-year-old structure, held together by a 69-year-old iron cage, is an uncomfortable, often embarrassing symbol of Christian divisions, which have periodically erupted into tensions. In 2008, monks and priests brawled near the shrine, throwing punches and pulling one another’s hair not far from the tomb where Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. But in recent weeks, scaffolding has gone up a few feet from the shrine in the gloomy shadows of the Arches of the Virgin, the first step in a rare agreement by the various Christian communities to save the dilapidated shrine, also called the Aedicule, from falling down.”

Report: 4 Iranian commandos killed in Syria

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency is reporting that four members of the Iranian Special Forces were killed in Syria while fighting against the Islamic State group.

The Tasnim news agency, which is considered close to the Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, reports the deaths but does not elaborate on the circumstances.

A number of Iranian soldiers have been killed in Syria, including high-ranking officers.

Iran is a key ally of the Assad regime and has provided military and financial support throughout the five-year civil war.

— AP

Paris-Brussels attacks network a ‘supercell’ of extremism

The number of people linked to the Islamic State network that attacked Paris and Brussels reaches easily into the dozens, with a series of new arrests over the weekend that confirmed the cell’s toxic reach and ability to move around unnoticed in Europe’s criminal underworld.

From Belgium’s Molenbeek to Sweden’s Malmo, new names are added nearly daily to the list of hardened attackers, hangers-on, and tacit supporters of the cell that killed 130 people in Paris and 32 in Brussels. A computer abandoned by one of the Brussels suicide bombers in a trash can contained not only his will, but is beginning to give up other information as well, including an audio file indicating the cell was getting its orders directly from a French-speaking extremist in Syria, according to a police official with knowledge of the investigation.

Ten men are known to be directly involved in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris; others with key logistical roles then — including the bomber, a logistics handler, and a hideout scout — went on to plot the attack March 22 in Brussels. But unlike Paris, at least two people who survived the attack have been taken into custody alive….

But investigators fear it may not be enough to stave off another attack. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, another Molenbeek native whose charisma made him a natural draw to many in the Brussels neighborhood after he joined IS extremists in Syria, said before his death that he returned to Europe among a group of 90 fighters from Europe and the Mideast, according to testimony from a woman who tipped police to his location.

Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who is now with the Soufan Group security consultancy, described the Brussels-Paris network as a “supercell.”

“The hope was that they had died out in the Paris attacks, and obviously that’s not true,” Skinner said in an earlier interview with The Associated Press.

— AP

EU extends Iran sanctions citing human rights situation

The European Union says it has extended sanctions against 82 Iranian officials until 2017 because of the human rights situation in the nation.

The 28-nation bloc has had asset freezes and travel bans in place against Iranians since 2011 because of perceived violations of human rights.

The measures come despite a recent improvement of relations linked to a nuclear deal between Western powers and Tehran.

— AP

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