The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s developments as they unfolded.

Netanyahu: Hezbollah tunnels ‘an act of war’

Ahead of the UN Security Council meeting later today on the cross-border attack tunnels attributed to the Hezbollah terror group, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the underground passages constitute “an act of war” and Lebanon is responsible.

The aim of Hezbollah was to “penetrate our territory, kidnap our people, including civilians, murder civilians, and conquer the northern piece of the Galilee. This is not merely an act of aggression, it’s an act of war,” says Netanyahu in an English-language speech.

“It is important to understand what Hezbollah is doing here. It’s committing a double war crime. It’s targeting Israeli civilians while jeopardizing, while hiding behind, Lebanese civilians. That’s a double war crime,” says Netanyahu.

“The people of Lebanon have to understand that Hezbollah is putting them in jeopardy and we expect Lebanon to take action against this, to protest against this, not to give in to this. And the fact that the Lebanese army is doing nothing means that they are either unable, or unwilling, or both.”

“It doesn’t absolve Lebanon’s culpability. Their territory is being used to attack our territory,” continues the prime minister.

“Therefore, we hold Lebanon accountable,” he says.

Asked whether the Lebanese army knew of the tunnel-digging, Netanyahu says: “To the best of our knowledge, the answer is no.” But he says the Lebanese military is now aware of the problem and must take action.

Netanyahu says the international community should hold Iran, Hezbollah and Lebanon accountable and heighten sanctions against the terror group.

Hezbollah is using “every third house” in southern Lebanon for terror purposes, he says.

Netanyahu says he asked Putin to condemn Hezbollah

Netanyahu says he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin “the other day” to discuss the upcoming UN Security Council meeting on the cross-border attack tunnels.

“And I asked that Russia take the right stance, which is to condemn Hezbollah, and not be either supportive of them or neutral on this,” he says.

Netanyahu says Russia has frequently voiced support for preventing wars in the region. “Well, the way to prevent another war is to prevent Hezbollah from acting aggressively against Israel from Lebanon or for that matter, from Syria. Same thing for Iran.”

“I’ve said that to Mr. Putin many times,” he says.

MKs give initial backing to bill to expel terrorists’ families from their homes

Lawmakers give initial approval Wednesday to controversial legislation that would allow Israel to forcibly relocate the families of Palestinian terrorists from their homes to other areas of the West Bank.

The bill is approved in its preliminary reading by a majority of 61 to 47 following a heated debate and despite vehement opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

According to the proposed legislation by Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev, within a week of an attack or attempted attack, the IDF’s Central Command will be permitted to expel the relatives of the Palestinian assailants from their hometowns to other parts of the West Bank.

The explanatory text accompanying the bill touts Israel’s deterrence as “the cornerstone of Israeli security and a way to save lives and uphold law and order.”

But on Monday, Mandelblit said it was unclear whether the bill would provide such a deterrent and warned it could infringe on human rights and spark international condemnation of Israel.

Raoul Wootliff

Bill to legalize 66 outposts clears initial Knesset hurdle

Legislation that seeks to legalize 66 Israeli outposts built in the West Bank has passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset.

In a vote of 61-47, the legislative body advanced the proposal which will prevent those outposts from being demolished and ensures that they receive full government services.

The legislation known as Regulation Law 2 still has to pass three more readings, but with the Ministerial Committee of Legislation’s green-lighting of the bill on Sunday, coalition members are obliged to support it in all further readings in the Knesset.

The Attorney General’s Office has come out in vehement opposition of the legislation, saying it raises significant legal problems and could even lead to international repercussions.

“We are committed to the development of settlement and thus, with God’s help, our enemies will understand that terrorism will not weaken us, but rather will only strengthen us and our hold on the Land of Israel,” says Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich in a tweet celebrating the vote.

Jacob Magid

Strapped for funding, World Food Programme suspends Palestinian aid

The World Food Programme is suspending food aid to 27,000 Palestinians in the West Bank due to budgetary woes, beginning on January 1, Reuters reports.

In the Gaza Strip and West Bank, aid for 165,000 Palestinians will be reduced by 20 percent.

Iran human rights lawyer Sotoudeh to face new trial

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh will go on trial again on December 23, her lawyer Payam Derafshan tells official news agency IRNA.

Sotoudeh, an award-winning activist, was arrested in June and told she had already been found guilty “in absentia” on spying charges and sentenced to a six-year prison term by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court.

It was not clear what charges she would face in the new trial, which will be heard at Tehran’s Revolutionary Court.

Prior to her arrest in June, 55-year-old Sotoudeh had taken on the cases of several women arrested for standing in public areas without their headscarves, which are mandatory in Iran.

She had also criticized a new criminal code that allows only a small number of lawyers to represent individuals charged with national security offenses, including a list of just 20 for Tehran.


Corbyn rapped for allegedly muttering ‘stupid woman’ at May

British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn gets himself into trouble on Wednesday for apparently muttering “stupid woman” at Prime Minister Theresa May during a heated exchange in parliament over her delaying tactics on Brexit.

The Labour Party leader is seen appearing to mouth the words in response to May making a joke about his failure to demand a no-confidence vote against her government after he had accused her of leading the country “into a national crisis.

Conservative MPs shout “disgraceful” when the allegations are first raised after the angry exchanges, and May herself is asked what she thought of the supposed comment.

“I think that everybody in this House, particularly in this 100th year of women getting the vote, should be encouraging women to come into this chamber and to stand in this chamber and should therefore use appropriate language in this chamber when they are referring to female members,” she says.

Several Conservative MPs say the alleged comment is a reflection of abusive language faced by many female politicians and a culture of bullying in parliament that has become a focus for concern in recent months.

Parliament speaker John Bercow says he did not see the incident himself but, if true, the allegation meant that Corbyn would have to apologize in front of parliament.


US said mulling full withdrawal of forces from Syria

The United States is considering withdrawing all of its troops from Syria, American officials tell Reuters.

The report comes as the United States nears the end of its campaign to eradicate the Islamic State terror group in the war-torn country.

Trump says IS fight was ‘only reason’ to be in Syria

US President Donald Trump appears to confirm reports his administration is seeking a full withdrawal of US troops from Syria.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the US president tweets.

Czech Republic condemns tunnel-digging on Israel’s border

The Czech Republic condemns the cross-border tunnels that Israel says were dug by the Hezbollah terror group with the aim of carrying out a large-scale attack or invasion.

“We strongly condemn Hezbollah’s construction of tunnels on Lebanese-Israeli border breaching UN Security Council resolution 1701, such activities further rise tensions and instability in the region,” says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic in a tweet.

The statement comes ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the tunnels, which is set to begin at 10 a.m. New York time (5 p.m. Israel time).

UN Security Council convenes for discussion on northern tunnels

The UN Security Council convenes for a discussion on the cross-border tunnels breaching Israeli territory from Lebanon.

Israel has accused the Hezbollah terror group of planning large-scale attacks using the underground network.

UN official says tunnels a ‘serious violation’ of key resolution

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, says the tunnels extending into northern Israel represent a “serious violation” of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Lacroix says both sides have been warned against escalating the situation. He also commends the Israeli army for its conduct.

US says Hezbollah is a ‘serious and real threat’

An American representative at the United Nations says Hezbollah is a “serious and real threat” and calls on the international community to unite against the Lebanon-based terror group.

Rodney Hunter, Minister Counselor for Political Affairs, says the United States strongly supports Israeli action to dismantle the tunnels penetrating its territory, while also affirming US support for UNIFIL and Lebanon.

He says it is both “regrettable and incomprehensible” that other countries have not yet recognized the gravity of the threat posed by the Iran-backed terrorist group.

Netanyahu corruption cases head to attorney general’s desk

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan says he has finished work on the three criminal cases against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has transferred the case material to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will decide whether to indict the premier.

Speaking at the Globes financial conference in Tel Aviv, Nitzan says that “in the coming days discussions will begin in the attorney general’s office in order to come to a final decision” on Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

“We have made and will continue to make every effort to finish the work as soon as possible,” he adds.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily newspaper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

In Case 4000 Netanyahu is suspected of advancing regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

Raoul Wootliff

Kuwait: Tunnels not really a threat, Israeli violations ‘much more dangerous’

Kuwait’s ambassador to the United Nations says the tunnels infiltrating into Israeli territory do not pose a threat to regional security and claims Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty is much more grave.

“Realistically, this incident is not really a threat to peace in the region,” says Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi.

“Lebanon has been living for years with Israeli violations. Israel has tried to exaggerate this incident militarily, and in the media,” he says.

Israeli violations are “much more dangerous” than the tunnel network, he insists.

“We renew our condemnation of Israeli violations against Lebanese sovereignty, in land, air and sea.”

Otaibi also insists efforts by Hezbollah to counter Israel are “legitimate” resistance, rather than terrorism.

“This resistance is not considered a terrorist act.”

UK condemns Hezbollah’s ‘blatant disregard for UN resolutions’

The British representative at the UN Security Council says, “We are clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against Hezbollah” and other armed groups.

Karen Pierce says Hezbollah has shown “blatant disregard for UN resolutions,” with its military activities, calling it “deeply alarming.”

The UK diplomat also condemns Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

Lapid says US withdrawal from Syria a Netanyahu policy failure

Opposition party leader Yair Lapid slams Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the US signals it will fully withdraw its troops from Syria, despite Israeli fears of Iranian military entrenchment in the neighboring country.

“The American withdrawal from Syria is a failure of Netanyahu’s foreign policy,” writes Lapid on Twitter. “This paves the way for Iranian entrenchment and reduces Israel’s bargaining power vis-a-vis the Russians.”

Netanyahu is also Israel’s foreign minister and defense minister.

White House says US started bringing troops home from Syria

US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says the military has started shipping American troops home from Syria, but insists the US-led coalition’s fight against the Islamic State terror group is not yet over.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate. These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign,” she says.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

At tunnel debate, Swedish envoy condemns violations ‘by both sides’

Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog tells the United Nations Security Council: “We are deeply concerned with the discovery of tunnels on Israeli territory…. We condemn all violations of Resolution 1701 by both sides, including the almost daily Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace.”

Raphael Ahren

US State Department staff said set to leave Syria in 24 hours

An American official tells Reuters that all State Department staff will leave Syria within 24 hours.

Measles reported on El Al flights from London, Frankfurt

The Health Ministry says travelers infected with the measles were on two Tel Aviv-bound El Al flights in the past week from London and Frankfurt.

In the first case, on December 12, a plane departing London at 10:30 p.m. had a sick passenger on board. The second flight departed Frankfurt on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

“Passengers who are not vaccinated with two doses against measles are invited to immediately turn to their local healthcare provider to inquire whether they need a vaccine against the measles,” the ministry said.

Lebanon says not seeking war with Israel, deploying forces near tunnel sites

Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations says Beirut does not seek war with Israel and maintains the Lebanese army is heavily deployed at the sites of the tunnels.

Lebanon has said “loudly and clearly and on the highest level that it is not interested in another conflict,” says Amal Mudallali.

“The Lebanese army is deployed heavily [at the tunnel sites]… to make sure that [UN resolution] 1701 is abided by strictly.”

She also condemns alleged Israeli violations of the Lebanese border, pointing “to Israeli responsibility to instigating conflict.”

“The Lebanese state did not commit any violations, while the violations on the Israeli side were committed by the state,” she says.

Danon says Lebanese army tipped off Hezbollah on Israel tunnel search

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations says the Lebanese army tipped off Hezbollah on Israeli military efforts to locate the terror group’s tunnels, based on sensitive information that UNIFIL had received from Israel.

Danny Danon tells the UN Security Council that Hezbollah sealed a tunnel after receiving a heads-up from the Lebanese military that Israel knew the location of one underground passage. At the same time, UNIFIL was prevented by the Lebanese army from visiting the area, he says.

“Israel gave UNIFIL precise information about the location of the tunnel. After UNIFIL told the Lebanese army, it was then stopped when it tried to reach the area. Sources within the Lebanese army informed Hezbollah about the information, which enabled the terrorist organization to conceal the tunnel’s operations and thwart Israel’s defensive actions,” says Danon.

“Lebanese army officials are working for Hezbollah, while UNIFIL is not working to fulfill its mandate in the region in the necessary manner,” he charges.

Netanyahu: US forces withdrawal from Syria is ‘America’s decision’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepts the US troop withdrawal from Syria, saying it’s “America’s decision.”

“I spoke two days ago with US President Donald Trump and yesterday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” says Netanyahu. “The US administration told me that it is the president’s intention to remove their forces from Syria. They clarified that they have other ways to express their influence in the region.”

“This is, of course, America’s decision,” Netanyahu says, adding that Israel will “uphold Israel’s security and protect ourselves from this front.”

GOP senators Graham, Rubio rap US pullout from Syria

Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio denounce the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.

Graham, on Twitter, calls the decision “a huge Obama-like mistake.”

“With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan,” he tweets.

Trump “is right to want to contain Iranian expansion. However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and put our allies, the Kurds at risk,” adds Graham.

Rubio calls it a “grave error with broader implications beyond just the fight against ISIS.”

US official: Trump decided on Syria pullout in call with Erdogan

An unnamed US official tells the Reuters news agency that Trump made his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria during a Friday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official is quoted as saying.

Netanyahu says Trump informed him of his decision during a Monday phone call.

Finance Ministry says it froze price hike on electricity, food products

The Finance Ministry says it averted a price hike on electricity, food products, bread, and milk, amid growing protests over the high cost of living.

“As I pledged in recent days, I am happy to report that the current wave of hikes has been stopped,” says Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in a statement.

TV: State prosecutor wants to charge Netanyahu with bribery in 2 cases

State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan believes Netanyahu should stand trial for bribery in two cases, known as 2000 and 4000, according to Channel 10.

Earlier on Wednesday, Nitzan said he finished work on the three criminal cases against Netanyahu and transferred the case material to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will decide whether to indict the premier.

According to the TV report, the state prosecutor is convinced that the prime minister should be charged with bribery in two of the three cases against him. In Case 1000, the third case, prosecutors are still split, the TV report says.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving benefits worth about NIS 1 million ($282,000) from billionaire benefactors, including Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, in exchange for assistance on various issues.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister hobble a rival daily newspaper, the Sheldon Adelson-backed freebie Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

In Case 4000 Netanyahu is suspected of advancing regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, in exchange for positive coverage from Elovitch’s Walla news site.

The state prosecutor also wants to put Mozes and the Elovitch couple on trial on bribery charges, the report says.

US approves $3.5 billion Patriot missile sale to Turkey

The United States says Wednesday it approved the sale of $3.5 billion in missiles to Turkey, months after US outrage over Ankara’s major arms purchase from Russia.

The State Department announces the sale, which includes 80 Patriot guidance missiles, hours after President Donald Trump said the United States would withdraw from neighboring Syria.


Hamas-linked Al-Aqsa to go off air due to financial woes

The Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV says it will halt its broadcasts at 5 p.m. on Thursday because of a financial crisis.

In mid-November, Israeli aircraft demolished the Al-Aqsa TV headquarters in Gaza City after hundreds of rockets and projectiles were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

Adam Rasgon

Report: Palestinian to be jailed for 18 years over murder of British student

The Palestinian man arrested over the fatal stabbing of a British student in a Jerusalem terror attack in April 2017 will serve 18 years in prison under a plea bargain, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

Hannah Bladon, an English student who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem on April 14, 2017. (UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Jamil Tamimi, 57, from the Ras al-Amoud neighborhood of East Jerusalem, will not be forced to compensate the family of the late Hannah Bladon, 21, who was an exchange student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tamimi had stabbed Bladon to death on the light rail.

At the time, police said he was on his way home from a mental hospital in northern Israel when he carried out the attack.

Jamil Tamimi, 57, who stabbed and killed Hannah Bladon on the Jerusalem Light Rail is brought into the Jerusalem District Court on May 11, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Sanders, Feinstein seek to divorce anti-BDS legislation from spending bill

Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein have asked US senate leaders not to vote on anti-BDS legislation as part of a spending bill.

“While we do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, we remain resolved to our constitutional oath to defend the right of every American to express their views peacefully without fear of actual punishment by the government,” the two wrote in a joint letter.

The bill — called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act — would prohibit American companies from participating in Israel boycotts, including those promoted by international organizations like the United Nations. The measure was advanced through the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June but later put on the back-burner after liberal advocacy groups and civil liberties groups objected to the legislation on grounds that it violated America’s speech rights.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin was reportedly working to include the controversial anti-BDS legislation in a spending bill this month, as US lawmakers rush to finalize the package in a last-minute push during a lame duck session.

The Sanders and Feinstein letter was hailed by left-wing US Jewish groups J Street and the New Israel Fund.

With Eric Cortellessa 

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