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Security cabinet approves broad military response if Gaza rocket fire continues

Ministers said to authorize Netanyahu, Gantz to order operation at time of their choosing after Palestinian terrorists in Strip launch projectiles for 3 straight nights

A picture taken in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 16, 2021, shows an explosion following an airstrike by Israel, after Palestinian terrorists in the enclave fired a rocket into Israeli territory. (Said Khatib/AFP)
A picture taken in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 16, 2021, shows an explosion following an airstrike by Israel, after Palestinian terrorists in the enclave fired a rocket into Israeli territory. (Said Khatib/AFP)

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

Israel said to warn Hamas of major retaliation if Gaza rocket fire continues

Israel has sent a warning to Hamas saying there will be a major retaliation if Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip again fire rockets at the Jewish state this evening, the Walla news site reports.

Quoting unnamed officials, the report says the message was sent to senior Hamas members and Palestinian leaders in Ramallah via Tor Wennesland, the UN’s envoy for Middle Eat peace.

Israeli officials told Wennesland that after closing the fishing zone off Gaza after a third straight night of rocket fire, Israel will respond militarily to any further attacks and that the consequences will be severe, according to the report.

Anonymous Western diplomats cited by the news site said Wennesland held talks this morning with Israeli officials to discuss ways to prevent a flare-up in Gaza and that he is expected to travel to Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence officials about the situation in the Strip.

Wennesland will also reportedly visit Jordan for talks on recent tensions in Jerusalem.

Iranian FM praises Iraq’s role as regional broker amid Iran-Saudi Arabia talks

BAGHDAD — Iran’s foreign minister praises Baghdad’s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they will lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region.

Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.

Zarif also extends Iran’s condolences after a massive fire at a Baghdad hospital for coronavirus patients over the weekend killed 82 people. Officials said the blaze, which also injured 110 people, was set off by an exploding oxygen cylinder.

Riyadh has been trying to end its years-long war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have increasingly launched missiles and bomb-laden drones at the kingdom to targeting crucial sites and oil infrastructure. Ending that war could be a bargaining chip for the Iranians as they seek sanctions relief from nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We welcome Iraq’s vital role in the region and we hope that day after day that strengthens Iraq’s role for the stability of the region,” Zarif says during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Fouad Hussein.

“We thank the Iraqi government for exerting its efforts,” Zarif says, without confirming the Saudi-Iran talks were indeed held in Iraq. “We hope that these efforts will lead to more negotiations and understandings in the region.”

All foreign powers will eventually leave, Zarif adds, but “we will stay here and we should base our relations on good neighborhood, no interference and mutual respect.”

Moderna’s top medical officer awarded honorary doctorate by Bar-Ilan University

Tal Zaks (C), Moderna's chief medical officer, receives an honorary doctorate during a ceremony at Bar-Ilan University on April 26, 2021. (Courtesy)
Tal Zaks (C), Moderna's chief medical officer, receives an honorary doctorate during a ceremony at Bar-Ilan University on April 26, 2021. (Courtesy)

Bar-Ilan University awards an honorary doctorate to Tal Zaks, the top medical officer at Moderna, for his role in developing the Massachusetts-based pharma firm’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“I am moved and thankful for this great honor. I see it as a token of appreciation of all the people at Moderna who are behind this achievement. All my professional life I have strived to interweave science and medicine, and I am proud to receive this award from a university that uniquely does so,” Zaks, who Israeli, is quoted saying in a statement from Bar-Ilan.

During the “hooding” ceremony at the university, Zaks also comments on the effectiveness of vaccines against coronavirus variants.

“When we assess mutations we realize that the basis of the virus is the same. The first variant is the important one, and I believe that we have provided a comprehensive response to it. An additional dose of the vaccine may be needed in the future and we are currently examining this possibility,” he says.

Zaks adds: “Today we have a global infrastructure and confidence in technology that allows us in a short time to produce vaccines that are resistant to any variant that develops.”

Gantz talks Gaza tensions with UN envoy, urges ‘immediate cessation of violence’

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) meets with United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland on April 26, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (R) meets with United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland on April 26, 2021. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland — a major intermediary between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip — regarding the escalating violence from the Palestinian enclave, his office says.

“I expressed the urgency of the immediate cessation of violence from Gaza and reiterated Israel’s unyielding commitment to protecting its citizens and sovereignty,” Gantz says in a statement.

Over the past three nights, terrorists in the Strip have fired some 45 rockets at southern Israel, causing damage to several Israeli communities near the border. In response, the IDF has conducted a limited number of airstrikes on sites controlled by the Hamas terror group, which rules the enclave, and barred Palestinians from fishing off the Gaza coast.

New Hope’s Sa’ar says time running out for unity government

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allotted time running out to form a government, one of his right-wing rivals expresses doubt that the “change bloc” of anti-Netanyahu parties can form a coalition to replace the premier.

“There are difficulties in forming a unity government,” New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar says during a Knesset faction meeting. “I can’t say if a government like this will be formed, but it is important to pursue this effort until the end. We have an obligation to do everything to prevent fifth elections.”

Sa’ar, a former minister in Netanyahu’s Likud party, bolted the ruling party before the elections to set up New Hope and campaigned on replacing the prime minister.

Asked if he is willing to serve first as premier as part of a power sharing agreement with Netanyahu, Sa’ar refuses to answer. The Likud leader’s allies have recently floated such a prospect as Netanyahu’s potential routes to assembling a coalition appear blocked.

Speaking after Sa’ar, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett says his party will join a government led by Netanyahu or any other right-wing MK.

Bennett reiterates that while he prefers a right-wing government, he will also back a unity government to avert further elections, but said “the gaps aren’t small” between the parties that would make up such a coalition.

“We’ll turn over every rock to prevent fifth elections. We maintain that the government should reflect the will of the voter and the makeup of the Knesset,” Bennett says.

Lapid vows to ‘do everything’ to seal unity government

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid pushes back after his prospective coalition partners in the right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties cast doubts on the prospects of forming a unity government.

“I heard Sa’ar and Bennett talking about gaps in assembling a unity government, but we all agree we need a government,” Lapid says during a faction meeting.

He asserts it is possible finalize a coalition deal within a week.

“I call on the partners to take responsibility. In the coming days we’ll have to make difficult decisions. We’ll do everything to finalize a government,” Lapid says.

Iran sentences Iranian-British woman to another year in prison

TEHRAN, Iran — An Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran has been sentenced to another year in prison in Iran, her lawyer says.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic.

Her lawyer, Hojjat Kermani, tells The Associated Press that she received the second sentence on a charge of spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.

State media in Iran doesn’t immediately acknowledge the sentence. Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, and the British Foreign Office don’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

The latest twist in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case comes as Britain and Iran negotiate a long-running dispute over a debt of some 400 million pounds ($530 million) owed to Tehran by London. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the late Iranian shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi paid the sum for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered.

She was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.

Health Ministry officials call for halt to direct flights from India for several weeks

Health Ministry officials tell Channel 13 news that direct flights from India should be temporarily halted, as the Asian country battles a major coronavirus surge that has seen it set new global records for daily infections.

“We need to stop the direct flights from India to Israel for at least a few weeks until the situation stabilizes,” the officials are quoted saying.

The officials say Israel has not yet halted these flights because of students and foreign workers coming from there.

“The skies won’t fall if the direct flights stop for a few weeks. The space for error is likely to be too big,” they say.

Israeli health officials have expressed concerns about the “Indian variant” of COVID-19, fearing that vaccines may be less effective against it. So far, the strain has been detected in only a handful of infected Israelis.

UK’s Johnson condemns reported new prison sentence for dual national in Iran

LONDON — Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson hits out at reports that dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been sentenced to an extra year in prison in Tehran.

“I don’t think it’s right at all that Nazanin should be sentenced to any more time in jail… I think it’s wrong that she’s there in the first place,” he says, adding that London is working “very hard” to secure her release.

An undated file photo provided by the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national detained in Iran. (Family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe via AP, File)

Far-right party leader: Arabs are citizens of Israel ‘for now at least’

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich tells the Kan public broadcaster that Arabs are citizens of Israel, “for now at least.”

Smotrich’s far-right party is a part of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right wing-religious bloc. His refusal to join a right-wing minority government propped up by the Islamist Ra’am party is blocking one of Netanyahu’s few potential routes to forming a coalition.

“Some of our enemies are still sitting in the Knesset and there are those who think it is possible to rely on them for assembling a government. Open your eyes and remove this stupidity from the agenda,” Smotrich says at a faction meeting, apparently referring to Ra’am.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a Knesset faction meeting on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu said under pressure to let Bennett be PM first in rotation government

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s associates are pressuring him to agree to a rotation government in which Yamina chief Naftali Bennett will serve first as prime minister, the Walla news site reports.

The aim of such an arrangement would be to bring the New Hope party into a right-wing government. New Hope has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government, and without its support the premier and his right-wing religious allies lack a majority.

Citing unnamed sources, the report says Netanyahu has not yet agreed to the proposal, but pressure from his associates is growing as his officially mandated time to form a government runs out.

Jaffa brothers indicted for assaulting rabbi, but not charged with racist motive

An indictment is filed against two brothers from Jaffa suspected of assaulting a rabbi in in the mixed Jewish-Arab district of Tel Aviv.

The indictment accuses the two of assaulting and threatening Rabbi Eliyahu Mali, who runs a yeshiva in Jaffa, but does not include a clause attributing a racist motive to the suspects. The assault triggered clashes in the area between Arabs and religious Jews.

Iran’s COVID death toll passes 70,000, with record 496 fatalities in past day

TEHRAN, Iran — The COVID-19 death toll in Iran passes 70,000, according to health ministry figures, with a record 496 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours.

Iran is battling the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak, and is struggling amid the latest wave of the infections.

Today’s figures bring the total number of deaths to 70,070, with over 2.4 million cases.

The previous record single-day death toll was 486 in November.

Some officials have admitted actual virus numbers are likely higher than official figures.

Iran has never imposed a general lockdown on its 82 million people.

But more than 300 Iranian cities and towns, including the capital Tehran, are classified as “red,” the highest rating on its coronavirus risk scale, requiring all non-essential businesses to close.

Like many other countries, the Islamic Republic is hoping vaccinations will help combat the health crisis, but the rollout of its inoculation campaign, which started in early February, has progressed more slowly than authorities had wanted.

The health ministry says today that Iran had administered more than 824,000 jabs.

Authorities are also hoping to produce one or more domestically developed vaccines.

Committee recommends shuttering Haifa’s petrochemical industry in a decade

An inter-ministerial committee within the National Economic Council at the Prime Minister’s Office recommends closing down the petrochemical and fertilizer industries in Haifa Bay soon as possible, and in any case within the next decade.

The committee of ministries’ directors-general issues a draft government plan for the development of the bay for public comment, after which it will make a final recommendation to the government.

The committee, set up in October, recommends adopting either one of two plans for the development of residential, commercial, industrial and green space instead.

The draft report cites above-average incidences of cancer and other pollution related diseases in the Haifa Bay, among several reasons for its decision.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who has pushed hard for the closure of the refineries, says, “The disposal of hazardous materials and cessation of pollutant emissions will lead to the opening of new businesses, the establishment of green industries and positive migration to the area.”

The Bazan oil refinery, owned by Israel Chemicals Ltd, imports crude oil to make a range of refined products for industry, transport and agriculture, 40 percent of which are then exported. Subsidiaries make products ranging from bitumen for road surfaces to waxes, oils, lubricants and polymers.

View of chimneys from a refinery in Haifa Bay (Photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
View of chimneys from a refinery in Haifa Bay. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Turks demonstrate outside US consulate over Biden’s Armenian genocide recognition

ISTANBUL — A small group of Turkish protesters gathers outside the American consulate in Istanbul to protest US President Joe Biden’s decision to call the Ottoman Empire’s mass deportations and killings of Armenians a century ago a “genocide.”

A few dozen protestors hold banners and chant slogans. “Genocide is a lie, it’s an American plan,” they say. Demonstrators also demand an end to the American military’s use of Incirlik airbase In southern Turkey, shouting: “American soldiers, get out of Turkey!”

On Saturday, Biden followed through on a campaign promise to recognize the events that began in 1915 and killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

Turkish officials strongly condemned the proclamation, claiming there are no legal or historical grounds for the use of the word. They say both Armenians and Turks were killed as World War I ravaged the Ottoman Empire.

The US consulates and the embassy are closed for routine visits until Wednesday after they issued a demonstration alert in the aftermath of Biden’s announcement.

Key panel approves Likud proposal to resume Knesset work

The Knesset’s Arrangements Committee approves a proposal to appoint a number of deputy Knesset speakers and set up several temporary parliamentary committees, allowing the parliament to resume work.

The proposal from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is approved with the backing of the Islamist Ra’am party and right-wing Yamina faction, neither of which are a part of the premier’s right-wing religious bloc but whose seats he needs to form a government.

Despite opposing a government propped up by Ra’am, Netanyahu’s partners in the far-right Religious Zionism party vote with the Islamist party to approve the proposal.

The three deputy Knesset speakers will be Shas MK Ya’akov Margi, Yamina MK Matan Kahane and Ra’am MK Mansour Abbas. The Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee will be led by Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai, while United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni will continue to head the Finance Committee. Barbivai will be the first woman to head the powerful committee.

The Arrangements Committee also approves the formation of a new Arab affairs committee, whose proposal by Likud earlier today helped secure Ra’am’s backing for the proposal. The committee’s formation must still be approved by the Knesset plenum.

Today’s vote comes a week after Likud MK Miki Zohar, who heads the Arrangements Committee, simply adjourned the panel rather than allow for a vote on the anti-Netanyahu bloc’s proposal for the establishment of parliamentary committees and deputies to the Knesset speaker, sparking outcry from left-wing lawmakers.

Internal affairs said to exonerate cop who shot dead mentally ill Arab man with knife

A Justice Ministry probe has reportedly exonerated a police officer who shot dead a mentally ill Arab man, after he was dispatched to the scene in Haifa where the victim was brandishing a knife.

The ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department has determined that the officer, whose name has been barred from publication, acted in self defense after finding himself in a life-threatening situation, according to Channel 12 news.

As a result, the officer had no other option but to fire his weapon at Munir Anabtawi, the report says.

US coronavirus cases further drop as vaccination rates rise

WASHINGTON — The rate of new COVID cases is declining in the United States, with the most recent seven-day averages dipping below the 60,000 mark for the first time in over a month as experts hailed the impact of vaccines.

Data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that as of April 24, the rolling average is 57,123 cases, and a month-long mini bump is now over.

It comes as the number of people vaccinated continued to rise, though the rate is beginning to taper off as domestic demand slows.

Almost 140 million people have now received one dose, or 42 percent of the whole population.

Writing on Twitter, Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, says he believes this time the decline will be permanent, “Because in mid-March, when last mini-surge began, 21% of the population had been vaccinated. Today, we’re twice that.”

He says that 42 percent with one shot wasn’t “enough,” but adds: “42% close to number at which we should see steady declines in infections. In Israel, once 45% of population was fully vaccinated, case numbers started to plummet.”

Experts are however worried by the vaccination rate, which peaked earlier this month at an average of more than 3 million doses per day and is now down to 2.6 million per day.

Many people who wished to get vaccinated have received jabs, though some access issues persist, particularly among communities of color.

On the other hand, vaccine skepticism remains high among some demographics, including political conservatives.

A government survey last month found the 10 states with the largest share of people who said they definitely or probably won’t get vaccinated are all conservative-leaning.

Security cabinet meeting held amid rising violence ends

After 2.5 hours, the high-level security cabinet has finished meeting today, amid rising violence on the Gaza border.

Health official: No current proof vaccines aren’t effective against ‘Indian variant’

An official in the Health Ministry stresses in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster that there is currently no indication that the “Indian variant” of COVID-19 is more resistant to vaccines.

“It’s not clear if India is the most dangerous country, but we’ll reduce entry from it, including foreign workers. At the moment, there is no proof that the vaccines aren’t effective against the variant arriving from there,” Asher Shalmon, the director of the ministry’s international department, tells the Kan public broadcaster.

In a separate interview, Shalmon tells Army Radio that health officials are limiting non-essential travel from India and halting direct flights from there.

“A not insignificant number of sick people arrived on the latest flights,” he says.

2 cops lightly hurt in Old City after being pelted with chair, other objects

Police say two officers were lightly injured after being attacked in the Old City of Jerusalem.

A table and other objects were thrown at the two in the Bab al-Huta neighborhood, leading to their injury, according to a police statement. Both required medical treatment.

The cops arrested two suspects on suspicion of assaulting police and are searching the area for other suspects, the statement said.

The incident comes amid recent tensions in the Old City surrounding Ramadan restrictions that have spilled over into violence.

Security cabinet said to OK major response if Gaza rocket fire continues

The security cabinet has authorized a major military response in case Palestinian terrorists in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip again fire rockets at Israel this evening, according to Hebrew media reports.

Ministers voted to allow Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to order the military response at a time of their choosing.

“The ball is Hamas’ hands. There is no desire on Israel’s part for an escalation, but we are prepared in case the [rocket] fire continues,” unnamed senior officials tell the Ynet news site.

Turkey’s Erdogan slams Biden’s ‘groundless’ Armenia genocide recognition

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounces US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide as “groundless” and harmful to bilateral relations.

“The US president has made comments that are groundless and unfair,” Erdogan says in televised remarks, warning that they could have a “destructive impact” on Turkish-US ties.

Iran seeks to downplay FM’s leaked remarks: The comments ‘are his personal opinions’

TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian foreign ministry downplays a leaked audiotape of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he said the military played too strong a role in diplomacy, saying it reflected his personal opinions.

Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh says Zarif’s comments in the three-hour tape were “confidential” and should not have been released.

“What was published was not an interview with the media,” Khatibzadeh tells reporters in Tehran.

The statement comes after Zarif’s comments were reported by media sites online, as well as the New York Times.

Conservatives have criticized Zarif for comments he made on the role of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike near the airport of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in January last year.

“In the Islamic Republic, the military field rules,” Zarif was reported as saying in the conversation, according to the New York Times.

“I have sacrificed diplomacy for the military field, rather than the field servicing diplomacy.”

The conservative Fars news agency criticizes Zarif for presenting himself during the conversation as “a symbol of diplomacy,” contrasting with Soleimani as a symbol of the “battlefield/”

Parliament speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf tweets his praise for the “wisdom and courage” of Soleimani, who “conquered the battlefields and paved the way for diplomacy.”

Ghalibaf also denounces “the political game” and “naivety” of criticizing Soleimani, without explicitly naming Zarif.

The Fars agency quotes lawmaker Nasrollah Pejmanfar, who demands “explanations” from the foreign ministry for the remarks.

“Mr. Zarif calls into question subjects appearing among the red lines of the Islamic Republic,” Pejmanfar says.

Ministry spokesman Khatibzadeh plays down the controversy, noting that Zarif said in the tape that his “statements are his personal opinions.”

Khatibzadeh says the conversation took place “within the framework of routine and confidential interviews within the government,” adding that leaking it was “a crime.”

Biden pledges COVID aid for India in call with PM Modi

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden promised emergency assistance to COVID-ravaged India in a telephone call today with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two countries say.

Biden “pledged America’s steadfast support for the people of India,” and says the United States “is providing a range of emergency assistance, including oxygen-related supplies, vaccine materials, and therapeutics,” according to the White House.

Shin Bet pressed police to remove Damascus Gate barriers — report

The Shin Bet security agency pressed the Israel Police to remove barricades preventing worshipers from sitting on stairs at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City during Ramadan, the Kan public broadcaster reports, citing police officials.

The Shin Bet believed the presence of the barriers, which were taken down yesterday was contributing to the recent tensions in the city, the report says.

The security service refused to comment on the report, but stressed its cooperation with police.

UK’s Johnson denies saying better to let 1000s of corpses ‘pile high’ than 3rd lockdown

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismisses as “total rubbish” a press report which quotes him as allegedly saying he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third national lockdown on the country.

The Daily Mail claims that Johnson made the comment during a heated discussion in late October, when his government imposed a second lockdown to combat a surge in coronavirus cases. A third lockdown was ordered in January as infections shot up again, driven by a new, more contagious variant of the virus.

The Daily Mail does not cite a source for the claim, but there has been a spate of leaks from Johnson’s 10 Downing St. office, which are being investigated by government officials. Broadcasters BBC and ITV say they had also been told of the “bodies” remark.

Johnson says today that the allegation is “total, total rubbish.”

Britain has spent much of the last year under restrictions on business and daily life as it tried to contain a COVID-19 outbreak that has left more than 127,000 people dead, the highest toll in Europe. Restrictions are gradually being eased, alongside a mass-vaccination campaign that has given at least one dose of vaccine to half the UK population.

Jewish pilgrimage in Tunisia resumes year after COVID cancellation

A Tunisian Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, on April 26, 2021, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)
A Tunisian Jewish pilgrim lights a candle on the first day of the annual pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue, the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, on April 26, 2021, in the Mediterranean Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (Fathi Nasri/AFP)

DJERBA, Tunisia — The annual Jewish pilgrimage to the ancient Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s Djerba island starts today without the usual thousands of pilgrims, due to restrictions to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

The pilgrimage to Ghriba — the oldest synagogue in Africa — takes place from April 25 to May 2 for the island’s Jewish community and the few faithful able to make the trip from abroad.

Last year, it was cancelled due to the pandemic, but this year, it is taking place — albeit with pilgrims praying individually and wearing face masks.

Former tourism minister Rene Trabelsi, himself Jewish, is in Djerba with about 20 French tourists.

He says that despite restrictions pilgrims could still offer their prayers.

“This year, we pray for the whole world,” Trabelsi says.

Beginning 33 days after the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, the pilgrimage usually attracts huge numbers of Jewish worshipers from across the world.

“We are very happy to be able to say our prayers,” says Elizabeth, an elderly lady from Paris, who gives only her first name.

“There are no festivities this year, but it does not matter, we come for prayer. Last year, it was impossible.”

Tunisia, with a population of some 12 million people, has recorded over 300,000 cases of COVID-19, including 10,304 deaths.

Tunisian Jews now numbers around 1,500, compared with an estimated 100,000 living in the North African country when it gained independence in 1956.

6 suspects now arrested for assaulting cops in Jerusalem’s Old City

Police have arrested four more people suspected of assaulting officers in Jerusalem’s Old City earlier today, raising the number of detainees to six.

Tributes in France for police official killed by suspected Islamist extremist

RAMBOUILLET, France — Masked and in silence, more than 1,000 police officers, family members, and others pay homage to a French police official killed inside her police station in what authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack.

Neighbors, colleagues, and friends of the victim join local officials at the tribute ceremony in front of the town hall of Rambouillet, a quiet Paris suburb rocked by Friday’s stabbing by a suspected Islamic extremist.

“A flame has been extinguished in everyone’s heart,” Mayor Veronique Matillon tells the crowd, honoring a woman who “was killed while serving out her functions.” The victim is identified publicly only as Stephanie M.

From Marseille on the Mediterranean to Strasbourg on the German border, police unions hold small, wordless gatherings in front of police stations across France at the same time as the one in Rambouillet.

At the Rambouillet tribute, local teacher Adrienne Nkemba describes her distress and that of her students after the stabbing.

“This really hit us,” she tells The Associated Press. “My children at school… they talked only about this all day.”

Meanwhile, a group of imams organizes another small tribute in Rambouillet to honor the slain official and show their support for police and national unity.

The attacker “betrayed us,” says Imam Hassen Chalgoumi. At his side, Rabbi Levi Matusof urges France to denounce terrorism and “to say together, never again.” Along with about a dozen supporters holding single white roses, they then sing the French national anthem.

French police killed the 37-year-old Tunisian attacker shortly after he stabbed the unarmed administrative employee on Friday at the entrance of her police station.

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