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Tens of thousands taking part in Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron

Gathering is the largest in Israel since the COVID pandemic began; senior health official warns public against attending, noting 35% of Israelis are unvaccinated

Jewish pilgrims at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Jewish pilgrims at the gravesite of Rashbi, or Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in Meron in the northern Galilee ahead of the start of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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

Nearly 30% of Israelis on unemployment refusing to go back to work — report

The Central Bureau of Statistics says nearly 30 percent of workers receiving unemployment benefits — around 20,000 people — are refusing to return to work.

A large majority of those currently refusing to work again — just under 64% — say they prefer to receive unemployment benefits.

The scope of the benefits — which are similar to the wages many young Israelis earned while employed — and their extension until the end of June have been cited as key causes why many unemployed people aren’t returning to work, despite the reopening of the economy as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

Weekly cabinet meeting to be held at PM’s office for 1st time during pandemic

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, next week’s cabinet meeting will be held at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem and not remotely by video conference, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

During Sunday’s meeting, the government is expected to fill a number of unstaffed ministerial posts, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to do so after his decision — later reversed — to appoint a loyalist as justice minister was challenged at the High Court of Justice.

German soccer chief apologizes for comparing deputy to Nazi judge

BERLIN — German Football Association (DFB) president Fritz Keller has apologized after comparing his deputy to a Nazi judge.

Keller said during a meeting last Friday that vice president of the DFB Rainer Koch was like Roland Freisler, the head of the Nazi party’s court during the 1940s.

Freisler was also a participant at 1942’s Wannsee Conference, where it was decided that 11 million Jews should be sent to death camps.

“Sometimes during controversies words are used that shouldn’t be,” Keller says in a statement.

“I apologized in person and in writing to Rainer Koch, who had the goodness to accept it, my comparison was totally inappropriate, notably towards the victims of Nazism, which I deeply regret,” he adds.

The situation was worsened as Koch works as a magistrate outside of his responsibilities with the DFB.

According to German media the DFB’s general secretary Friedric Curtius has taken the incident to the organization’s ethical committee.

Fritz Keller, the president of the German football federation (DFB), poses for a photo as he attends the DFB’s annual congress in Frankfurt, Germany, September 27, 2019. (Daniel Roland/AFP)

Iran’s presidential office axes think tank head over leaked tape of FM

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s president has replaced the head of a think tank that recorded an interview with the country’s foreign minister that leaked out this week, a tape that provided a rare glimpse into the theocracy’s power struggles and set off a firestorm in Iran.

In the recording of the conversation between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and an economist at the Strategic Studies Center, the think tank associated with Iran’s presidency, Zarif offers a blunt appraisal of diplomacy and his constricted role in the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s presidency announces the former chief of Strategic Studies Center resigned and Ali Rabiei, who already serves as the Cabinet spokesman, will replace him.

The audio tape, leaked earlier this week to London-based, Farsi-language news channel Iran International, set off political controversy across Iran ahead of the country’s June 18 presidential election. While Zarif has said he does not want to run in the election, some have suggested him as a potential candidate to stand against hard-liners in the vote.

Zarif’s leaked remarks included cutting references to the limits of his power and those of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top commander in Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard who was killed in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Earlier this week, Zarif expressed regret that the recording had leaked out as the country’s president portrayed the breach as an incident intended to derail ongoing talks over the return to Iran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

Education Ministry: 484 students, 23 teachers currently sick with COVID

There are currently 484 students and 23 teachers at schools throughout Israel who are confirmed to have COVID-19, according to the Education Ministry.

Ra’am chief: Still no decision whether to back Netanyahu-led gov’t or his rivals

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas says his Islamist party has not yet decided whether to back a government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu or a coalition headed by the premier’s political rivals.

“Ultimately, any government that is formed will need both Ra’am and Yamina,” Abbas tells Kan public radio’s Arabic-language station.

The comments came a day after Abbas, who has emerged as a potential kingmaker after the March 23 elections, met with Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, in their first-ever political contact. The sit-down came just days before Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expires.

Both parties are the only ones that in last month’s elections refused to back either Netanyahu’s right wing-religious bloc or the rival “change bloc” that seeks to oust him.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas at the Knesset on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas to skip meeting of Palestinian factions over opposition to election delay

Hamas will not participate in tonight’s meeting of Palestinian factions in Ramallah, where Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to delay the planned Palestinian elections.

“Our stance is clear — we oppose this delay, and we will not help cover it up,” a spokesperson for Hamas’s electoral campaign says.

The Palestinians are scheduled to head to their first legislative elections in 15 years on May 22. But Abbas is said to be planning to delay them tonight, fearing a defeat by his political rivals.

Official warns against Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron due to risk of COVID exposure

As large crowds descend on Mount Meron ahead of this evening’s Lag B’Omer celebrations, an official is warning Israelis against taking part in the festivities.

“Whoever goes to Meron needs to know, his blood will be on his own head and he is likely to be exposed to those sick with coronavirus who roam the place unsupervised,” the unnamed official tells the Kan public broadcaster.

The official is described by Kan as being familiar with the details of a plan for regulating the celebrations that was never approved by the government, leading to concerns that the hundreds of thousands visitors expected at Meron will fuel a COVID-19 outbreak.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at Mount Meron in northern Israel ahead of the Lag B’Omer holiday, April 28, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Iranian Arab separatists plead not guilty to terror charge in Denmark

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Three leaders of an Iranian Arab separatist group plead not guilty to financing and promoting terrorism in Iran with Saudi Arabia’s backing, as their trial opens in Denmark today.

The three risk 12 years in prison if found guilty.

Aged 39 to 50, the trio are members of the separatist organization ASMLA (Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz), which is based in Denmark and the Netherlands and which Iran considers a terrorist group.

The three, one of whom a Danish citizen, have been held in custody in Denmark since February 2020.

Gert Dyrn, lawyer for the eldest of the three, tells AFP that in his client’s opinion “what they are charged with is legitimate resistance towards an oppressive regime.”

“They are not denying receiving money from multiple sources, including Saudi Arabia, to help the movement and help them accomplish their political aim,” Dyrn says.

His client has lived as a refugee in Denmark since 2006.

According to the charge sheet seen by AFP, the three received around 30 million kroner (four million euros, $4.9 million) for ASMLA and its armed branch, through bank accounts in Austria and the United Arab Emirates.

The trio is also accused of spying on people and organizations in Denmark between 2012 and 2020 for Saudi intelligence.

Finally, they are also accused of promoting terrorism and “encouraging the activities of the terrorist movement Jaish Al-Adl, which has activities in Iran, by supporting them with advice, promotion, and coordinating attacks.”

The case dates back to 2018 when one of the three was the target of a foiled attack on Danish soil believed to be sponsored by the Iranian regime in retaliation for the killing of 24 people in Ahvaz, southwestern Iran, in September 2018.

Tehran formally denied the attack plan in Denmark, but a Danish court last year jailed a Norwegian-Iranian for seven years for his role in the plot.

Bennett, Sa’ar to meet with Ra’am chief Abbas on Friday — TV

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar will meet together tomorrow with Ra’am head Mansour Abbas for talks on forming a new government, Channel 12 news reports.

Blinken meets with visiting Mossad chief for talks on Iran

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is currently meeting with visiting Mossad chief Yossi Cohen for talks on Iran, according to Hebrew media reports.

Also taking part in the meeting is Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the US and UN.

Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat have been in Washington the past few days as the Biden administration seeks to rejoin the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which Israel opposes.

Yesh Atid, Yamina and New Hope hold hours-long coalition talks

Negotiating teams from the Yesh Atid, Yamina and New Hope parties have been meeting since the morning in a bid to form a government without Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The negotiators are discussing the parties’ demands and what steps are needed to assemble a coalition, according to Yamina.

The meetings came after representatives from Yamina and New Hope held marathon talks yesterday.

Associate of Ra’am chief: Expect significant development in efforts to form government on Saturday

Tayibe Mayor Sha’a Mansour Massarwa, an associate of Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas, tells Channel 12 news that there is likely to be a significant development on Saturday evening in the “change bloc” of anti-Netanyahu parties’ efforts to form a government.

Health Ministry to require quarantine for all travelers from 7 virus-hit nations

Chezy Levy, the director-general of the Health Ministry, signs a public health order requiring all travelers — including those vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 — from seven countries dealing with coronavirus outbreaks to quarantine for 10-14 days upon entering the country.

The countries are Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Turkey.

The Health Ministry says the order, which still requires Knesset approval, will enter into effect on Monday, May 3.

De Blasio expects NYC to ‘fully reopen’ by July 1

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expects the city to “fully reopen” by July 1, with the lifting of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions.

De Blasio tells MSNBC the city will be ready for stores, offices and theaters to open at full strength. He cites improved COVID-19 vaccination rates and decreasing hospitalization rates.

But it is unclear whether the mayor has the power to say when schools, restaurants and offices can open at full capacity. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has maintained throughout the pandemic that those decisions are his alone.

Health Ministry reports ‘difficulties’ in doing genome sequencing at schools with Indian strain

The Health Ministry says it has “encountered difficulties in cooperating” with the Education Ministry to carry out genome sequencing at schools where five cases of the Indian coronavirus variant were discovered.

Two of the schools are in the Ma’ale Adumim settlement and the others are in Ashdod, Holon and Pardes Hanna.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s director of public health, notes in a letter to the director-general of the Education Ministry that at all of these schools except the one in Holon recently experienced coronavirus outbreaks.

“Even if it is not currently known about confirmed [cases] at the schools, the combination of the presence of a variant that may be dangerous, the fact that there were recently outbreaks and the knowledge from the pandemic that children are asymptomatic in 70 percent of cases, requires quick sequencing to be carried out widely at the aforementioned schools, to ensure there is no morbidity,” she writes.

She also says the “the situation is particularly” concerning because kids aren’t vaccinated and spend extensive time together in a closed space.

“If we can’t sequence as required we will need to consider closing the school or part of it,” Alroy-Preis warns.

IDF reports only 1 active coronavirus case among servicemembers

There is currently one confirmed case of coronavirus in the Israel Defense Forces, the military says.

According to the IDF, the servicemember has only light symptoms.

This the lowest number of cases in the IDF since March 10, 2020.

There are currently 105 servicemembers in quarantine, the IDF says.

NATO says Afghanistan withdrawal has started

BRUSSELS — NATO has begun to withdraw its own mission from Afghanistan following a decision by US President Joe Biden to bring US forces home, an alliance official says today.

“NATO Allies decided in mid-April to start the withdrawal of Resolute Support Mission forces by May 1 and this withdrawal has begun. This will be an orderly, coordinated, and deliberate process,” a NATO official tells AFP.

IDF nabs 4 Gazans for crossing into Israel

Israeli troops arrest four Palestinian men who crossed into Israel from the southern Gaza Strip during a violent protest on the border, the military says.

“No weapons were found in the possession of the suspects, and they are being questioned at the scene,” the Israel Defense Forces says.

Lapid on efforts to form unity gov’t: We’ve agreed that 1st law should be term limits for PM

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid says his party and other anti-Netanyahu factions working to form a government are in agreement on numerous issues, as Hebrew media reports on several gaps that remain between the sides.

In a lengthy Facebook post, Lapid says the parties agree that on issues of religion and state, there’s a need to act “wisely and mostly cautiously.”

“Politics and religion are a problematic mix and we have no interest in trampling on anyone,” he writes.

Lapid adds: “The issues under dispute are clear to all the sides and now is the time to also look for issues on which there is agreement.”

He doesn’t elaborate on what these dispute are, but reports say they include whether to push forward with moves opposed by the ultra-Orthodox such as cutting stipends for yeshivas, as favored by the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu, or to leave open the door for Haredi parties to later join the government, which Yamina chief Naftali Bennett is said to favor.

The Yesh Atid leader, who doesn’t specify by name what party chiefs he is in agreement with, says they agree on the need for a new generation of leadership in Israel, after 12 consecutive years in which Prime Minister Netanyahu, 71, has led the country.

“The first law that needs to be passed is limiting the terms of the prime minister,” he says.

Noting the disparate factions that would compromise a unity government, Lapid says the sides understand there will be disagreements between them if a coalition is indeed formed.

“This is what happens when people different from each other decide to cooperate,” he says.

France announces entry restrictions on Lebanese implicated in political crisis

PARIS — France has begun imposing entry restrictions on certain Lebanese figures as a sanction for their role in Lebanon’s political crisis or corruption, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says.

“We reserve the right to adopt additional measures against all those preventing an exit from the crisis, and we will do so in coordination with our international partners,” adds Le Drian, without naming which figures the measure was targeted against.

Tens of thousands taking part in Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron

Tens of thousands of people are celebrating the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron, in the largest public gathering in Israel since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Due to the large crowds, police say they are unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at Mount Meron, according to Channel 12 news.

Some 200,000 people are expected to visit the northern Galilee site over the coming day, with health officials worried the festivities could lead to mass contagion.

A top Health Ministry official urges Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron.

“In all 35% of the State of Israel isn’t vaccinated, therefore this is an unsafe situation,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, who heads the ministry’s public health department, tells Channel 13 news.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service says it has treated 52 people at Mount Meron during the day, including eight who were taken to Ziv Medical Center in nearby Safed for further treatment.

Retiring Supreme Court justice: Judiciary, rule of law under assault from politicians

Israel’s political class is mounting a sustained and escalating assault on Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement bodies, Supreme Court Justice Menachem (Meni) Mazuz warns at a small gathering at the court marking his retirement.

“We’re in a period of confrontation and growing criticism and vitriol from the political system directed at the judiciary and the law enforcement system as a whole,” Mazuz says. The constant state of combat with the political echelon “makes it difficult for the court to fulfill its purpose and duty, challenging it on a daily basis.”

But, he adds, “this difficulty only highlights and further clarifies the vital importance of the court insisting on fulfilling its important constitutional-social role in defending the values of democracy and human rights.”

Mazuz, 65, a former attorney general and outspoken member of the court’s more liberal wing, announced his retirement in December for unspecified “personal reasons.” He leaves the bench several years early. The mandatory retirement age for Israeli judges is 70.

Until his comments today, his retirement has been a quiet one. He declined the traditional farewell ceremony for a judge retiring from Israel’s top court, instead opting for a small gathering with fellow justices.

Chief Justice Esther Hayut says at the ceremony, “We were very saddened by your decision to finish your term with us prematurely, but we respect your decision.” She praises his “uncompromising professionalism.”

Supreme Court Justice Meni Mazuz at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Iran suspended from world judo federation for 4 years over Israel boycott policy

The International Judo Federation announces Iran’s national team will be suspended for a 4-year period for refusing to let Iranian athletes face Israeli opponents.

Iran’s federation will lose its status as an IJF member until September 17, 2023, according to an IJF statement. The suspension will be retroactive to September 18, 2019, when the IJF first announced it would suspend Iran after an Iranian judoka walked off his national team in protest of the boycott policy.

Israeli minister warns a ‘bad’ Iran nuclear deal will spark Middle East war

As talks are held in Vienna for the US to rejoin the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program, an Israeli minister warns a bad agreement could ignite the region.

“A bad deal will send the region spiraling into war,” Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen tells Reuters.

Cohen, a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party, says negotiators should consider the long-term implications of any deal and not just focus on short-term benefits.

“Israel will not allow Iran to attain nuclear arms. Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our planes can reach everywhere in the Middle East — and certainly Iran,” he says.

Cohen also calls on world powers to force Iran to stop “destabilizing other countries” and funding armed proxy groups.

Likud Minister Eli Cohen speaks at the Economy Ministry in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Abbas: Israel not allowing Palestinian elections in Jerusalem because there’s no Israeli gov’t

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tells a gathering of the extended Palestinian leadership that Israel informed the Palestinians that they could not hold election events in Jerusalem as no Israeli government has yet been formed to consider their request to do so.

“A persuasive reason, and we’d accept it. But which government, then, establishes thousands of settlements every day?” Abbas says. “This is unacceptable nonsense.”

The first Palestinian legislative elections in 15 years are set to take place on May 22. But rumors are circulating that Abbas, fearful of losing to his rivals, will cancel the planned vote tonight over the alleged Israeli refusal.

In a long speech, Abbas says the Palestinian Authority sought numerous times to engage its European and American partners on the subject of holding elections in Jerusalem, but to no avail.

According to Abbas, European Union envoys also told the Palestinian side after meeting with Israeli officials that Israel would not countenance a vote in East Jeruaslem.

Abbas says that the Palestinian leadership will debate how to resolve the crisis tonight at an extended meeting. Hamas and Islamic Jihad both are boycotting the meeting in protest of alleged plans to delay or cancel the elections.

Abbas hints that he is willing to cancel elections over Jerusalem, telling his audience that the question of Jerusalem makes these elections “totally different” than prior ones.

“Now, Israel is saying, ‘this isn’t yours, no matter what.’ What happened in 1996, 2005 and 2006, is one thing, and now is totally different,” Abbas says, referring to previous Palestinian elections.

Police overseeing evacuation of Mt. Merom, with death toll at 38

Huge crowds are evacuating the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage event at Mt. Merom in the Upper Galilee after dozens of people were killed, and many more injured, in an apparent stampede after midnight Thursday-Friday.

The current death toll is 38, but the number is not final.

Police are overseeing the evacuation, as ambulances and helicopters are still ferrying the injured to hospitals.

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