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Ukraine’s envoy: We could recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in coming months

Speaking in city, Yehven Korniychuk expresses hope embassy branch will be inaugurated next year if security ties expand

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

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

Islamic Jihad praises terror attack, does not take responsibility

Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)
Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)

The Islamic Jihad terror group praises — but not does take responsibility for — the deadly terror attack that left an Israeli man dead and wounded two others in the northern West Bank tonight.

“We bless the heroic operation carried out by heroic resistance fighters from among our people, which came as a natural response to the crimes of the occupying soldiers and settlers,” says Tariq Izz al-Din, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad’s West Bank branch.

Herzog receives credentials of 5 new female ambassadors

Non-Resident Ambassador of the Republic of Nauru Margo Deiye presents her credentials to President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Non-Resident Ambassador of the Republic of Nauru Margo Deiye presents her credentials to President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

President Isaac Herzog receives the credentials of the new ambassadors from five countries, including close friends of Israel — El Salvador, Malta, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Nauru.

The incoming ambassadors — all women — are welcomed by the IDF Band and an IDF honor guard, after which they present their letters of credence in the Great Hall of the president’s residence in Jerusalem.

Herzog holds a working meeting with each ambassador after the ceremonies.

El Salvador’s envoy, Susana Edith Gun de Hasenson, returns for her second posting as ambassador in Israel. The two discuss El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele’s plan to establish a volcanic-energy powered “Bitcoin City.”

Malta’s ambassador, Cecilia Attard Pirotta, also returns for her second ambassadorial posting in Israel. She and Herzog discuss Mediterranean regional affairs and growing tourism between the countries.

Costa Rican envoy Rita María Hernández Bolaños presents her letter next.

“Costa Rica is especially beloved by us,” says Herzog. “It has been a friend of Israel since its establishment, and we will always remember its support. It is a country that Israelis who visit love intensely.”

Ecuador’s Helen Sophie Deller Klein, the country’s first Jewish envoy to Israel, and Herzog discuss her family’s escape from Nazi-occupied Europe to Latin America.

Herzog discusses with Margo Deiye, Nauru’s non-resident ambassador who is also its UN representative, the effects of climate change on the Pacific island nation. Herzog thanks Nauru for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after the United States.

Herzog calls Bahrain’s king to mark country’s 50th National Day

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump, on May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa speaks during a meeting with US President Donald Trump, on May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President Isaac Herzog speaks with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to congratulate him on Bahrain’s 50th National Day.

Speaking by phone, Herzog extends Israel’s warmest wishes on Israel’s behalf, and notes that the kingdom’s history stretches back much further than 50 years.

According to the president’s office, King Hamad thanks Herzog, stressing that the two nations have much in common, especially their desire for peace, prosperity, and progress for the region.

“Indeed, we both want, above all, regional peace and mutual prosperity,” responds Herzog, emphasizing the importance of bilateral economic cooperation.

In September, Herzog received the credentials of Bahrain’s first ambassador to Israel, Khaled Yusuf Al Jalahma. Israel’s first envoy to Bahrain, Eitan Na’eh, will soon present his letter of credence to the King of Bahrain.

At an event hosted by Bahrain’s Embassy in Israel, Herzog’s foreign policy adviser, Zvi Vapni, reads a message from the president to the king, in which he calls Bahrain “a kingdom of peace and prosperity, a hub for global commerce and finance, and an island of stability.”

“I am dedicated to using my tenure as president to strengthen our bilateral relationship for the benefit of both our nations,” reads Herzog’s letter.

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine praises shooting terror attack

Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (ZAKA)
Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (ZAKA)

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also praises the terror attack that left an Israeli man dead in the northern West Bank.

“What happened near Nablus is a statement that our people will not submit to the occupation. The message of the cities of the West Bank is that we will address the occupation in the language of bullets,” senior PFLP official Hani al-Thawabta tells official Hamas television.

Hamas also welcomed the attack, which wounded three Israelis, one fatally, near the illegal West Bank outpost Homesh.

IMF examines extent of Lebanon’s financial sector losses

Lebanese army blocks a road by barbed wire that leads to the Ain el-Rumaneh neighborhood after the deadly clashes that erupted a week earlier along a former 1975-90 civil war front-line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas, in Beirut, Lebanon, on October 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Lebanese army blocks a road by barbed wire that leads to the Ain el-Rumaneh neighborhood after the deadly clashes that erupted a week earlier along a former 1975-90 civil war front-line between Muslim Shiite and Christian areas, in Beirut, Lebanon, on October 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Amid ongoing talks on a new aid program, the IMF is examining data from Lebanon’s government on the scope of financial sector losses, estimated at about $69 billion, a fund spokesman says.

“I’d say there’s been considerable progress in identifying financial sector losses,” IMF spokesman Gerry Rice tells reporters in reference to the information submitted this week by Beirut.

Disagreements over the size of the losses between Lebanon’s government, central bank and banking sector contributed to the collapse last year of negotiations with the fund over a new loan program, which is seen as essential to the country’s efforts to emerge from a severe economic slump.

Deputy Prime Minister Saade Chami tells AFP that officials have agreed that financial sector losses amount to “around $69 billion,” though he described that as an estimate that could change.

Rice says the Washington-based crisis lender is “now assessing the government’s announced figures, and we’ll continue our discussions with the authorities in the context of the engagement.”

An IMF team will travel to Beirut early next year to continue the discussions, he says.

Hamas praises fatal West Bank shooting attack

Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)
Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)

The Hamas terror group praises the deadly shooting attack near the illegal outpost of Homesh in the northern West Bank, although the Islamist faction did not immediately take responsibility.

“Hamas blesses this heroic operation in Nablus against the occupation forces and the murderous settlers,” says Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim.

The terror attack left one Israeli dead. Two other Israelis were lightly wounded by shards of glass during the shooting. The Israeli army is deploying across the area in an attempt to nab the perpetrators.

“This operation proves yet again that our heroic people will continue their struggle until they expel the occupier,” Qasim adds.

Gantz declares ‘high alert’ after fatal West Bank shooting attack

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a ceremony on the first night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on November 28, 2021. (Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at a ceremony on the first night the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, on November 28, 2021. (Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz says Israeli security forces are going on high alert following tonight’s shooting attack in the northern West Bank.

“Security forces will get their hands on the terrorists. We are continuing to raise our alertness and readiness against terror in Judea and Samaria and will continue to use all our capabilities on all fronts against terrorist organizations,” he says in a statement.

9 test positive for COVID on flight from New York to Tel Aviv

Arriving travelers walk to the COVID-19 testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Arriving travelers walk to the COVID-19 testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Nine people who were on a flight that landed today in Israel from New York have tested positive for COVID, according to Hebrew media reports.

The nine cases aboard the El Al flight from the John F. Kennedy International Airport are being investigated to see if they involve the new Omicron COVID variant.

Currently, all those who enter Israel are required to do three days of quarantine with two negative tests, including one in the airport upon landing.

Those from “red” countries must do seven days of quarantine, though officials are weighing turning all countries “red” and requiring anyone who enters the country do a week of quarantine with two negative tests — even if they are fully vaccinated with a booster.

Israeli man confirmed dead in West Bank shooting attack

Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)
Paramedics work at the scene of a shooting attack near Homesh in the West Bank, on December 16, 2021. (United Hatzalah)

An Israeli man in his 20s has been confirmed dead after being shot in an attack near the West Bank outpost of Homesh.

In the shooting attack this evening, three young men were wounded, one seriously and two lightly. The man who was hit fatally suffered a bullet wound in his neck, and paramedics were forced to declare his death at the scene after resuscitation attempts.

The IDF confirmed that the shooting took place and said it was investigating. Large numbers of IDF troops were called to the scene, setting up roadblocks in the area in an apparent effort to catch the shooters.

Paramedics say that the three men were wounded while sitting inside a car. The fatally wounded victim “was unconscious with multiple bullet wounds.” The other two people in the car, say paramedics, were conscious and treated on the scene and brought to a hospital.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev condemns “the ugly head of Palestinian terror once again raising its head” and sends condolences to the family of the man.

Ukraine envoy: Kyiv could recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital soon

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

At an event in Jerusalem marking 30 years of Israel-Ukraine ties, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk says his country could recognize the city as Israel’s “one and only capital” in the next year, and open a branch of its embassy during a visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Korniychuk tells The Times of Israel that he believes recognition is a matter of months, not years, but that Zelensky has certain preconditions in the security and defense relationship between the countries before that happens.

“As soon as I get permission, I will do it immediately,” says Korniychuk.

The announcement comes after Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who grew up in Ukraine, expresses during his address at the event his hope that Zelensky will open an embassy branch in Jerusalem. Elkin presented Korniychuk with a 2,700-year-old artifact bearing the word “Jerusalem” in Hebrew, and the Ukrainian envoy then takes the microphone and makes the unprepared remarks.

While this does not equal official recognition, it shows the direction ties are moving, Elkin tells The Times of Israel.

“I have worked for years to have more countries open embassy branches in Jerusalem, and I hope to see this come to fruition,” he says.

The embassy branch would deal with promoting bilateral ties in trade and technology.

Omicron COVID variant found in wastewater of Florida county

Guests required to wear masks because of the coronavirus pandemic stroll through the Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment complex, on June 16, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Guests required to wear masks because of the coronavirus pandemic stroll through the Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment complex, on June 16, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Wastewater samples show that the new Omicron variant is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the Florida county that is home to America’s largest theme park resorts, officials say.

The Omicron variant has quickly surpassed the Delta variant in collections taken from wastewater sampling sites in Orange County, officials say.

Even though the county has almost no confirmed cases involving Omicron, a sampling this week shows the variant represents almost 100 percent of the coronavirus strains in the wastewater facility samples, Orange County Utilities spokesperson Sarah Lux says in an email.

However, it’s a different story when it comes to people seeking treatment for COVID-19, officials said.

“Those who are hospitalized are being primarily infected by the Delta variant,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said yesterday at a news conference held at the Orlando International Airport.

3 Israelis reported wounded in shooting near West Bank outpost

The settlement of Homesh in December 2005. (photo credit: CC BY Neria Harua/Wikipedia)
The settlement of Homesh in December 2005. (photo credit: CC BY Neria Harua/Wikipedia)

A shooting was reported near the West Bank outpost of Homesh.

Three Israeli men in their 20s were injured in the shooting attack, one of them critically, according to medics. Medics were performing CPR on the critically injured victim while taking him to a nearby hospital by helicopter.

The other two victims sustained moderate and light injuries, respectively, according to the Magen David Adom ambulance service.

Details of the incident remain unclear.

The IDF confirmed that the shooting took place and said it was investigating. Large numbers of IDF troops were called to the scene, setting up roadblocks in the area in an apparent effort to catch the shooters.

According to Channel 12 news, the three Israeli men were shot while exiting the Homesh outpost toward the Shavei Shomron settlement.

Magen David Adom director Eli Bin says the victim who is fighting for his life is being taken to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva.

Economy minister says ‘Green Pass’ won’t start in malls tomorrow

People shop at the Givatayim shopping mall, on February 21, 2021, after it reopened following a few weeks of lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People shop at the Givatayim shopping mall, on February 21, 2021, after it reopened following a few weeks of lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai says that a plan to have the “Green Pass” system begin in malls across Israel tomorrow will be delayed.

Barbivai tells Channel 12 news that it won’t start tomorrow since “we didn’t want to make a decision from one day to the next.”

The plan that was slated to begin tomorrow would have necessitated everyone getting checked at the entrance to the mall, with those in possession of a “Green Pass” being handed a bracelet giving them access to all stores.

Those without a pass proving they have a vaccine booster or two doses within the past six months would only be allowed to enter essential shops like supermarkets and pharmacies.

But after a public outcry from mall owners, the government revisited the plan, but could not come to a conclusion earlier today on how to best implement it.

“We want to avoid wide contagion in public places,” says Barbivai, adding that the government is continuing to push for vaccines in both adults and children.

“Israelis are looking at Europe and we’re seeing the Omicron variant spreading in Europe and around the world,” she adds as the justification for such measures.

“Nobody wants to cause damage” to the economy and the commerce sector, Barbivai says.

Government reportedly weighing 7-day quarantine for all returning travelers

Travelers at the Ben Gurion Airport, on November 29, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers at the Ben Gurion Airport, on November 29, 2021. (Flash90)

The government is weighing instituting a 7-day quarantine for all returnees from abroad, reports Channel 12 news.

According to the report, health officials are weighing recommending that anyone who enters Israel will be required to spend a week in quarantine with two negative COVID tests before being released.

Currently, all those who enter the country are required to do three days of quarantine with two negative tests. Those who come from “red” countries, which currently include most of Africa, the UK, Denmark, and will soon include France, Spain, the UAE and others, must do seven days of quarantine, even if they are fully vaccinated with a booster.

Unvaccinated Israelis who enter the country from any destination must do a week of quarantine with two negative tests.

UK reports yet another new daily record for COVID cases

Shoppers, some wearing face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19, walk along Oxford Street in central London, on December 10, 2021. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP)
Shoppers, some wearing face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19, walk along Oxford Street in central London, on December 10, 2021. (Niklas Halle'n/AFP)

Britain’s government says it recorded another record daily number of COVID-19 cases.

Authorities report 88,376 new confirmed cases, almost 10,000 more than the previous record set a day earlier. Officials say 146 people infected with the coronavirus died between Wednesday and Thursday.

UK officials have said the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading at an “absolutely phenomenal pace,” with case numbers doubling every two to three days.

The UK Health Security Agency says another 1,691 Omicron cases have been identified in the country, bringing the total to 11,708, though scientists warn the number is likely to be much higher.

Israel has labeled the UK as a “red country,” barring its citizens from traveling there and mandating 7-day quarantine for even vaccinated returnees, which will go into effect at midnight tonight.

Palestinians report first cases of Omicron COVID variant

Palestinians receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinians receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The Palestinian Health Ministry reports its first cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

Three instances of the worrying new variant have been diagnosed in the West Bank, according to the ministry.

At least 89 cases of Omicron have been confirmed in Israel, many in those who recently returned from abroad. Earlier today, a Knesset security guard was confirmed to have the variant, sending many staffers and one MK into quarantine.

US imposes sanctions against China over abuse of Uighurs

This combination image shows US President Joe Biden in Washington, on November 6, 2021; and China's President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, on November 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Eraldo Peres, File)
This combination image shows US President Joe Biden in Washington, on November 6, 2021; and China's President Xi Jinping in Brasília, Brazil, on November 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Eraldo Peres, File)

The Biden administration says it is imposing new sanctions on several Chinese biotech and surveillance companies and government entities for actions in Xinjiang province, the latest step against Beijing over human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims in the country’s western region.

The Commerce Department is targeting China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and its 11 research institutes that focus on using biotechnology to support the Chinese military.

The move will bar American companies from selling components to the entities without a license.

“The scientific pursuit of biotechnology and medical innovation can save lives. Unfortunately, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is choosing to use these technologies to pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups,” says US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

“We cannot allow US commodities, technologies, and software that support medical science and biotechnical innovation to be diverted toward uses contrary to US national security.”

The Treasury Department is also set to issue penalties against several Chinese entities, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the soon-to-be-announced moves.

Cyprus expects full tourism sector rebound by 2024

A family on vacations lounges at the pool of Nissi Blue hotel in southeast resort of Ayia Napa, in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, on May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A family on vacations lounges at the pool of Nissi Blue hotel in southeast resort of Ayia Napa, in the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, on May 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

The government of Cyprus expects tourism to start fully rebounding in 2022 after arrivals this year increased a healthy 175 percent over a dismal 2020, says its deputy tourism minister.

Deputy Minister of Tourism Savvas Perdios says the Mediterranean island nation recorded around 1.7 million traveler arrivals between January and October, 54% fewer than in the record-setting year of 2019.

But unlike other years, arrivals noticeably increased this fall instead of dropping off in September, Perdios says.

He says tourism is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

Tourism directly accounts for 13% of Cyprus’ economy and the precipitous drop in revenue during the first months of the pandemic hit the country hard.

Iran says UN can’t see images from cameras at nuclear site until sanctions end

The alleged Karaj centrifuge parts plant near Karaj, Iran, seen in a photo posted online by Google user Edward Majnoonian, in May 2019. (Screenshot/Google Maps)
The alleged Karaj centrifuge parts plant near Karaj, Iran, seen in a photo posted online by Google user Edward Majnoonian, in May 2019. (Screenshot/Google Maps)

The UN atomic watchdog will not be able to examine camera images from a nuclear facility near Iran’s Karaj until after sanctions are lifted, an Iranian official says.

The comment came a day after Tehran and the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said they had reached agreement on replacing the cameras at the facility which makes centrifuges.

That agreement came after Western powers warned time is running out to revive a 2015 deal under which Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capabilities — under IAEA supervision — in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran says the video surveillance cameras were damaged in a June attack that it blames on Israel.

“The cameras will be installed in a way that they take images which will be stored in the cameras’ memory,” says Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

“When they are full, the memory cards will be removed and placed under the joint control of Iran and the Agency,” he says, quoted by state news agency IRNA. “In other words, the Agency will not have any access to the information before sanctions are lifted.”

Canadian police pursue lead in 2017 murder of Canadian Jewish couple

Barry and Honey Sherman pose for a photo in Toronto, Canada, October 15, 2017. (United Jewish Appeal Federation - Greater Toronto/ Canadian Press via AP)
Barry and Honey Sherman pose for a photo in Toronto, Canada, October 15, 2017. (United Jewish Appeal Federation - Greater Toronto/ Canadian Press via AP)

Police are searching for information about a potential suspect in the 2017 murder of two Canadian Jewish philanthropists.

Toronto police release a video showing a suspect walking near the home of Barry and Honey Sherman on the evening that the couple was murdered in their home.

Police have made no breakthroughs in the murder of the couple in the four years since they were found killed side-by-side in the basement of their home. The family has hired its own investigators into the incident but no leads have been uncovered so far.

Erdan brings group of visiting UN ambassadors to see Hezbollah tunnel

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan leads a group of UN ambassadors on a tour of Israel's northern border on December 16, 2021. (Shlomi Amsallem)
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan leads a group of UN ambassadors on a tour of Israel's northern border on December 16, 2021. (Shlomi Amsallem)

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan leads a group of 12 UN ambassadors on a tour of Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

The delegation — which consists of ambassadors from Albania, Argentina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Ecuador, Hungary, Nauru, Palau, South Korea, Samoa, Uruguay and Zambia — tour a Hezbollah smuggling tunnel and hear from security officials.

The visit is designed “to show them the murderous and extremist plan of the terrorist organization Hezbollah,” says Erdan, “whose goal is to burrow into the territory of the State of Israel and to kill or kidnap as many citizens as possible. Hezbollah has been planning this for years, but the IDF uncovered it.”

Erdan says he expects the UN and the international community “to hold the government of Lebanon responsible for what will happen in the next conflict in the North… the ambassadors need to understand that the IDF will have no choice but to destroy all of Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon if it opens fire on the citizens of Israel.”

UK says it may need tougher restrictions as COVID cases skyrocket

People wear face coverings as they walk through Westminster, in London, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced tighter restrictions to stem the spread of the omicron variant. He is again urging people to work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes to get into nightclubs and large events. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
People wear face coverings as they walk through Westminster, in London, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced tighter restrictions to stem the spread of the omicron variant. He is again urging people to work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes to get into nightclubs and large events. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

England’s chief medical officer says the UK government may have to consider a tougher response to the wave of COVID-19 sweeping the country if vaccines prove less effective than anticipated against the new Omicron variant.

In testimony to a parliamentary committee, Prof. Chris Whitty says scientists won’t fully understand how well vaccines work against Omicron until they’ve conducted clinical studies on patients infected with the variant. Data from those studies isn’t expected until the last week of December at the earliest.

Whitty’s comments come in response to questions about whether the government was considering more restrictions on personal and business interactions after the UK reported 78,610 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number since the pandemic began.

The government this week rolled out an accelerated vaccine program that aims to offer everyone over the age of 18 a booster shot by the end of the year. It has also implemented new rules ordering masks to be worn in most indoor settings in England and requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter nightclubs and large events.

US Navy rescues Iranian drug smugglers from burning ship off Oman

In this handout photograph from the US Navy, a traditional dhow sailing vessel suspected of smuggling drugs burns in the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (US Navy via AP)
In this handout photograph from the US Navy, a traditional dhow sailing vessel suspected of smuggling drugs burns in the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. (US Navy via AP)

The US Navy says it has rescued five Iranians suspected of smuggling drugs after they apparently set fire to their stash on board a traditional sailing vessel off the coast of Oman.

The Navy releases aerial surveillance footage showing the traditional ship, known as a dhow, as it sailed in the Gulf of Oman yesterday. Those on board pour a liquid, likely an accelerant, over the cargo hold as the Navy approaches. Smoke then pours from the vessel after those on board apparently set the fire, with an explosion rocking the ship.

The five Iranians rescued from the dhow received medical treatment and have been handed over to authorities in Oman, the Navy said. One additional Iranian on board the dhow remains missing.

Trump reportedly says ‘Israel did not do the right thing’ in Soleimani attack

Illustrative: A supporter of the Hezbollah terror group uses her mobile phone to takes a picture of photo of slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leaders, Abbas al-Moussawi, Ragheb Harb and Imad Mughniyeh and the end of a 40-day Muslim mourning period for Soleimani, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, February 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Illustrative: A supporter of the Hezbollah terror group uses her mobile phone to takes a picture of photo of slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah leaders, Abbas al-Moussawi, Ragheb Harb and Imad Mughniyeh and the end of a 40-day Muslim mourning period for Soleimani, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, February 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Then-US president Donald Trump was reportedly unhappy with Israel’s level of involvement in the targeted assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.

According to an Axios report, Trump had expected that Israel and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be more active in the operation.

“Israel did not do the right thing,” Trump told reporter Barak Ravid in an interview for Ravid’s upcoming book. “I can’t talk about this story. But I was very disappointed in Israel having to do with that event… People will be hearing about that at the right time.”

A former US official told Ravid that Trump griped that Netanyahu was “willing to fight Iran to the last American soldier.”

Foreign Ministry denies religious bias in granting entry exemptions

An arriving traveler walks to the COVID-19 testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
An arriving traveler walks to the COVID-19 testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Foreign Ministry denies any accusations of religious discrimination in granting exemptions for foreigners to enter the State of Israel during the COVID ban on entry.

Yesterday a spokesman for Christian churches in the Holy Land accused Israel of discriminating against Christian tourists during the normally busy Christmas holiday season.

“These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false and dangerous,” the ministry said in a statement. “We expect religious leaders to not engage in and promote baseless discourse of hatred and incitement that only serve to add fuel to the fire of antisemitism and can lead to violence and cause harm to innocent people.”

A ban on foreign entry was reinstated in Israel at the end of November due to fears of the Omicron variant, and it has been extended until at least December 29. A recent report indicated that an exemption was made for “Jewish tourism” including Birthright groups but not for Christian groups looking to visit for Christmas.

But the ministry denied the report, saying the exemptions were being granted without any connection to religion.

“The Committee examines each request without bias or discrimination toward any race or religion,” it said. “In recent days, the Exceptions Committee has issued numerous permits, to both Jews and Christians. Some of the approved requests were those that came from the church authorities in Israel, including permits for priests to enter the country for the upcoming Christian holidays.”

Kurds find mass grave of Islamic State victims in Iraq

In this photo from May 14, 2013, a group of armed Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) enter northern Iraq in the Heror area, northeast of Dahuk. (AP Photo/Ceerwan Aziz, File)
In this photo from May 14, 2013, a group of armed Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) enter northern Iraq in the Heror area, northeast of Dahuk. (AP Photo/Ceerwan Aziz, File)

Kurdish forces in northern Iraq find a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 11 Iraqi policemen presumed killed by jihadists, a peshmerga security official says.

“A mass grave was discovered on Thursday in the Duraji area” where there are many caves once used as hideouts by the Islamic State group (IS), the official says.

Duraji is in Salaheddin province in an area disputed between the federal government and the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

“The bodies of at least 11 Iraqi police officers have been taken from the grave so far” since the operation began in the morning, says the official. “We think they had been prisoners of IS in 2018,” the official says, adding that both peshmerga and Iraqi federal police were taking part in the search.

He says the mass grave was discovered as a result of “information obtained from IS hideouts in the region where the jihadists imprisoned members of the Iraqi forces they captured.”

Knesset security guard tests positive for Omicron COVID variant

The Knesset Guard lowers Israeli flags to half-staff outside the Knesset in Jerusalem as a national day of mourning begins for victims of the Meron disaster, May 2, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)
The Knesset Guard lowers Israeli flags to half-staff outside the Knesset in Jerusalem as a national day of mourning begins for victims of the Meron disaster, May 2, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

A security guard at the Knesset tests positive for the Omicron variant of COVID-19, says the Knesset spokesperson.

The guard has not been at work since Sunday. Due to the guard’s case, 21 other security and Knesset personnel as well as United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush have been instructed to enter quarantine.

Earlier today, Porush accompanied new US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides during his visit to Bnei Brak.

Afghan women call for rights and aid in Taliban-approved march

An Afghan woman protester (2R) speaks with Taliban fighters during a demonstration at Shahr-e Naw in Kabul on December 16, 2021, demanding the right to education, jobs and political representation from the Taliban government. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)
An Afghan woman protester (2R) speaks with Taliban fighters during a demonstration at Shahr-e Naw in Kabul on December 16, 2021, demanding the right to education, jobs and political representation from the Taliban government. (Wakil KOHSAR / AFP)

Dozens of women protest in Afghanistan’s capital, demanding the right to education, jobs and political representation from the Taliban government.

Although public protests are effectively banned by Afghanistan’s new hardline rulers, authorities gave permission for the march — held in biting cold after the first snowfall of winter in Kabul.

“Food, careers and freedom,” participants chant, while others hold placards demanding women get political posts.

Some protesters carry banners echoing Taliban complaints that the international community had frozen billions of dollars in aid and assets.

Despite being permitted to protest, participants say they remain in fear of the country’s new rulers.

“Fear is always there, but we cannot live in fear — we have to fight against our fear,” says 28-year-old Shahera Kohistan.

New US ambassador visits senior Haredi Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides speaks during his swearing in ceremony as new ambassador to Israel, at the President's residence in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides speaks during his swearing in ceremony as new ambassador to Israel, at the President's residence in Jerusalem, December 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

New US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides is visiting a series of ultra-Orthodox figures during a trip to Bnei Brak — including prominent Haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky.

According to reports, Nides thanks Kanievsky “for his brave stance on the issue of COVID vaccines, against all opposition.” Kanievsky, 93, has faced threats from those angered by his public support for the vaccine.

Nides, who was sworn in just last week, also visits Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, who invited the new envoy to visit the ultra-Orthodox city. He also meets with Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva.

Driver indicted for transporting terrorist to Old City stabbing attack

Israeli security forces at the scene of stabbing attack outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, on December 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli security forces at the scene of stabbing attack outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, on December 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A 48-year-old resident of Kafr Qasim is being indicted in connection with the stabbing attack of a man in Jerusalem’s Old City earlier this month.

The man, a taxi driver, drove the suspect from the Palestinian village of Qalqilya to Jerusalem, where the terrorist stabbed a young Haredi man before being shot dead, according to the indictment.

The indictment charges the taxi driver with negligence for bringing a West Bank resident to Jerusalem, and says that he “should have suspected that a West Bank resident could carry out an attack in Israeli territory.”

Denmark becomes first in EU to authorize Merck COVID pill

This undated image provided by Merck & Co. shows its new antiviral medication. (Merck & Co. via AP)
This undated image provided by Merck & Co. shows its new antiviral medication. (Merck & Co. via AP)

Denmark recommends US drugmaker Merck’s anti-COVID treatment molnupiravir for at-risk patients with symptoms, becoming the first EU country to do so.

The pill-based treatment, marketed under the name Lagevrio, was backed for emergency use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in mid-November, allowing individual EU countries to decide for themselves whether to use the pills even before being formally authorized.

Lagevrio has been approved since November in the UK and is in the process of being approved in the US.

“We are recommending the pill treatment because we believe that the benefits outweigh the harms for those patients who are most at risk of becoming severely ill with COVID-19,” says Kirstine Moll Harboe at the Danish Health Authority. “At the same time we are fully aware that this is a new and unapproved treatment about which we do not yet have much knowledge.”

5 children die in bouncy castle accident in Australia

Emergency services personnel work the scene of a deadly incident involved with a jumping castle at the Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport, Tasmania, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (Grant Wells/AAP Image via AP)
Emergency services personnel work the scene of a deadly incident involved with a jumping castle at the Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport, Tasmania, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (Grant Wells/AAP Image via AP)

Five children have died and four others are in critical condition after falling from a bouncy castle that was lifted 10 meters (33 feet) into the air by a gust of wind at a school on Australia’s island state of Tasmania.

The school was holding a celebration to mark the end of the school year.

The children who died include two boys and two girls in year 6, which would make them 10 or 11 years old, says Tasmania police Commissioner Darren Hine. Police then confirmed a fifth child died in the hospital.

Five other children were being treated, including four in critical condition. Hine says an investigation is underway.

France to restrict travel from Britain to fight Omicron

People wait in line at a vaccination center in London on Dec. 13, 2021. (Frank Augstein/AP)
People wait in line at a vaccination center in London on Dec. 13, 2021. (Frank Augstein/AP)

France will restrict arrivals from Britain because of fast-spreading cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, its government says.

The new measures — putting limits on reasons for traveling and requiring 48-hour isolation upon arrival — will take effect first thing Saturday, just after midnight, “in the face of the extremely rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the UK,” says French Prime Minister Jean Castex.

The French government is holding a special virus security meeting Friday that will address growing pressure on hospitals in France from rising infections in recent weeks. Delta remains the dominant variant in France, but Omicron is spreading so fast in Britain that it’s raising concerns across the Channel.

All those arriving from Britain will need to have a negative virus test less than 24 hours old, and to test again upon arrival and isolate “in a place they choose” for at least 48 hours pending the result. The measures will apply to vaccinated travelers as well as unvaccinated travelers.

Jerusalem girls school shut after dozens test positive for COVID

Israeli children on their first day of the new school year, at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israeli children on their first day of the new school year, at the Pola school in Jerusalem, September 1, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

An all-girls religious school in Jerusalem has been shut after at least 62 COVID cases were reported there.

According to Hebrew media reports, the Evelina de Rothschild school in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem has switched to remote learning after 62 students and faculty tested positive.

According to the Health Ministry, 58% of all those who tested positive for COVID on Wednesday were part of the education system– 404 students and 26 staff. Out of the 6,446 active COVID cases on Thursday, 3,584 were students.

Prosecutors to indict 14-year-old Palestinian girl for stabbing attack

Police officers at the scene of a stabbing attack in the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers at the scene of a stabbing attack in the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prosecutors plan to indict a 14-year-old Palestinian girl who stabbed a Jewish woman in Jerusalem last week.

According to police, the girl planned the morning of the attack to carry out the stabbing, and followed her target — 26-year-old Moriah Cohen — for several minutes before stabbing her in the back in the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where they both live.

Cohen — who was with her children at the time, who were unharmed — was treated at the hospital and released the same day. The stabber fled the scene and hid out in her school, where she swapped clothes with a friend. The friend is also expected to be indicted, say police.

The attacker’s remand has been extended for an additional five days until Monday, when she is expected to be indicted.

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