The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they happened.
Two terrorists convicted of killing an Israeli teenager in 2019 are sentenced to life imprisonment.
Along with the life terms, a military court hands Qassem Asafra an additional 40-year sentence, while Nasir Asafra gets another 20 years. The two convicts are cousins.
Dvir Sorek, 18, was stabbed to death near the West Bank settlement of Migdal Oz in August 2019. He was a yeshiva student enrolled in a program combining Torah study with military service.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has agreed to accept Ceylon tea in payment for a Sri Lankan oil debt valued at $251 million, Iranian media reports.
“In recent negotiations, we reached a written deal to reimburse Iran’s debt and interest on it in the form of a monthly shipment of tea produced in Sri Lanka,” the head of Iran’s Trade Promotion Organization says.
Alireza Peyman-Pak is quoted as saying that “a deal was reached on Tuesday, according to which Sri Lanka will export tea to Iran every month to settle a $251 million debt for Iranian oil supplied to Sri Lanka nine years ago.”
In 2016, Ceylon tea made up nearly half of Iranian consumption, but the proportion has declined in recent years.
The barter deal will allow sanctions-hit Iran to avoid having to use up scarce hard currency to pay for imports of the widely consumed staple, Peyman-Pak says.
“Iran and Sri Lanka have great potential to develop mutual trade,” he says, adding that Iran’s non-oil exports to the country are valued at less than $100 million a year.
Sri Lankan Plantation Industries Minister Ramesh Pathirana says the deal “will not violate any UN or US sanctions since tea has been categorized as a food item under humanitarian grounds,” according to the Economynext website.
He adds that Iranian banks that have been blacklisted under US sanctions will not be involved in the transaction.
The Health Ministry has decided that Israel will not begin offering fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Sunday as planned for Israelis over 60 and others at risk, Channel 13 news reports. The decision was made at a meeting held by the ministry this evening, it says.
The report notes that Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, has yet to approve the campaign and says he has been examining data from Britain indicating the Omicron variant of coronavirus causes less severe illness than the Delta strain.
The network says that if more such data accumulates, Ash may not back the government advisory panel’s recommendation from Tuesday night to offer the additional booster shots at this stage to medical personnel, over 60s, and at-risk groups, and instead send the matter back for further deliberation.
Israel was set to become the first country in the world to roll out a fourth dose for certain groups.
A separate report from the Kan public broadcaster says Ash will likely make a decision on whether to approve the fourth vaccine doses by the middle of the next week.
Kan says Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to start administering the additional booster shots as soon as possible but acknowledges Ash has final say on the matter.
Bennett on Tuesday night had welcomed the expert panel’s recommendation and ordered that officials prepare the campaign to distribute the vaccines.
Ash’s boss, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, had said yesterday that those eligible for a fourth shot would be able to get it as soon as Sunday without needing an appointment.
President Isaac Herzog phoned Pope Francis today to wish him a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year on behalf of Israelis, his office says.
“The president underscored that Israel is fully committed to the protection of the wellbeing and status of Christian churches and communities in the Holy Land and the Middle East,” a statement sent out by Herzog’s spokesman says.
“He told the pope about his recent visit to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and added that Israel embraces its Christian minority and is committed to freedom of worship.”
LONDON — Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange have requested permission to appeal a ruling that opened the door for his extradition from Britain to the United States on spying charges.
The attorneys ask today for permission to appeal the High Court’s ruling, arguing that the US government’s pledge Assange wouldn’t be subjected to extreme conditions in prison was meaningless because it is conditional and could be changed at the discretion of American authorities.
Earlier this year, the US State Department promised that if he is convicted Assange wouldn’t be imprisoned at the “supermax” penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the highest-security prison in the country. They also pledged he wouldn’t be held under “special administrative measures,” which can include segregation from other prisoners and the loss of privileges such as visits, correspondence and use of the telephone.
Attorneys don’t know when the High Court will rule on the application, but they don’t expect a decision until the third week of January, Stella Moris, Assange’s fiancée, says in a statement.
Prosecutors have filed papers declaring their intent to indict a Palestinian security prisoner for stabbing a guard at a prison in southern Israel, according to police.
A police statement says an investigation for attempted murder was opened earlier this month after the 29-year-old Gaza resident attacked and stabbed the guard with a shiv. The guard was injured and required medical treatment.
The suspect will remain in police custody until at least December 27 after a court extends his remand.
LONDON — Britain’s public health agency says preliminary data suggest people with the Omicron variant are between 50 percent and 70% less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta strain of the coronavirus.
The UK Health Security Agency findings add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants — but also spreads faster and better evades vaccines.
The agency says that based on cases in the UK, an individual with Omicron is estimated to be between 31% and 45% less likely to attend a hospital emergency department compared to Delta, “and 50 to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital.”
It cautions that the analysis is “preliminary and highly uncertain” because of the small number of Omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most were in younger age groups. As of December 20, 132 people had been admitted to UK hospitals with confirmed cases of Omicron, of whom 14 — aged between 52 and 96 — died.
WARSAW, Poland — Polish Senator Krzysztof Brejza’s mobile phone was hacked with military-grade spyware nearly three dozen times in 2019 when he was running the opposition’s campaign against the right-wing populist government in parliamentary elections, an internet watchdog finds.
Text messages stolen from Brejza’s phone — then doctored in a smear campaign — were aired by state-controlled TV in the heat of that race, which the ruling party narrowly won. With the hacking revelation, Brejza now questions whether the election was fair.
It’s the third finding by the University of Toronto’s nonprofit Citizen Lab that a Polish opposition figure was hacked with Pegasus spyware from the Israeli hacking tools firm NSO Group. Brejza’s phone was digitally broken in to 33 times from April 26, 2019 to October 23, 2019, say Citizen Lab researchers, who have been tracking government abuses of NSO malware for years.
The other two hacks were identified earlier this week after a joint Citizen Lab-Associated Press investigation. All three victims blame Poland’s government, which has refused to confirm or deny whether it ordered the hacks or is a client of NSO Group. State security services spokesman Stanislaw Zaryn insists that the government does not wiretap illegally and obtains court orders in “justified cases.” He says any suggestions the Polish government surveils for political ends were false.
NSO, which was blacklisted by the US government last month, says it only sells its spyware to legitimate government law enforcement and intelligence agencies vetted by Israel’s Defense Ministry for use against terrorists and criminals. It does not name its clients and would not say if Poland is among them.
Citizen Lab says it believes NSO keeps logs of intrusions so an investigation could determine who was behind the Polish hacks.
In response to the revelations, European Union lawmakers say they will hasten efforts to investigate any abuse of Pegasus spyware by member nations.
The other two Polish victims are Ewa Wrzosek, an outspoken prosecutor fighting the increasingly hardline government’s undermining of judicial independence, and Roman Giertych, a lawyer who has represented senior leaders of Brejza’s party, Civic Platform, in sensitive cases.
The first Emirati astronaut brought an Israeli flag with him when he traveled to the International Space Station in 2019, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry says.
Alon Ushpiz tweets that Hazzaa al-Mansoori gifted the flag to Israeli officials during a visit to the Israeli pavilion at the Expo 2020 in Dubai.
“This is a gift for all Israelis,” al-Mansoori said at the pavilion, according to the Ynet news site.
The astronaut’s trip — the first by an Arab to the International Space Station — came nearly a year before Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize diplomatic ties as part of the US-backed Abraham Accords.
This morning we hosted a very dear & special guest at the Israel pavilion at @ExpoDubai2021, the first Emirati astronaut. @astro_hazzaa gifted us with an Israeli flag he took with him on his first mission to the International Space Station. Thank you (& may the force be with you) pic.twitter.com/DGdgXzJmSG
— Alon Ushpiz (@AlonUshpiz) December 23, 2021
CAIRO — A prominent Egyptian human rights activist was released today after serving her sentence on charges of spreading false news and insulting a police officer, her lawyer and family say.
Sanaa Seif, who hails from a renowned family of activists, had been behind bars since June 2020. She was convicted in March 2021 of broadcasting what authorities said were fake news and rumors about health conditions and the spread of the coronavirus in Egyptian prisons.
Mona Seif, her sister and also a prominent human rights advocate, posts photographs of Sanaa on social media showing her smiling and walking with friends upon her release.
— Mona Seif (@Monasosh) December 23, 2021
The development comes after an Egyptian court on Monday sentenced the Seif sisters’ brother, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, to five years on charges of spreading false news.
Abdel-Fattah was first sentenced in 2014 on charges of taking part in an unauthorized protest and allegedly assaulting a police officer. He was released in 2019 after serving a five-year term but was rearrested again later that year, in a crackdown that followed anti-government protests.
Sanaa Seif was arrested while she and other family members were at the public prosecutor’s office to file a complaint about an attack against them outside Cairo’s Tora prison complex. The family had been going daily to the prison, hoping to receive a letter from imprisoned Abdel-Fattah.
In a separate case in 2016, Seif was convicted of insulting a government employee and was sentenced to six months. After that, she served 15 months of a three-year sentence for demonstrating against a law banning public gatherings. She was pardoned early in that case.
The siblings’ father, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, was a renowned human rights lawyer who died in 2014. Their mother, Leila Soueif, is a mathematician and a prominent advocate for academic independence. Their aunt is Ahdaf Soueif, an award-winning novelist.
A restaurant worker in Kfar Saba is seriously injured after getting his hand caught in a meat grinder.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service says paramedics treated the man at the scene before rushing him to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iraq’s foreign minister says on a visit to Tehran that the time has come for the Islamic Republic and the United States to negotiate directly on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We call for, and this is no secret, direct negotiations between the two parties,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein tells a joint press conference.
“Iraq’s interest is in helping the two parties to sit round a table and talk,” he says.
“We have proposed this to the Americans and have made this proposal (to Iran) and even before our visit to Tehran.
“It is better that a direct meeting take place between the American party and the Iranian party,” Hussein says.
He says Iraq feels there is a “problem” with the negotiating mechanism at the Vienna talks.
“The negotiations with the American side are indirect, through the European envoy,” he says.
“We think the time has come for direct talks between Washington and Tehran to reach common understandings not just on the nuclear issue, but also on sanctions.
“We need direct contact between the two parties and we are working towards that,” Hussein says.
Iraq is Iran’s neighbor, and Hussein says US-Iran relations “are not an external matter for Iraq, but an internal one.”
He says tensions between the long-time foes impacts directly on the political and security situation in Iraq, and that detente between the two would have a positive effect.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian outlines the way contacts currently take place.
“The Americans send unwritten messages to meetings and receive responses” indirectly from Iran, he says.
“As for the Islamic Republic, we seriously declare that we want to reach a good agreement and we hope the other parties also come and negotiate with the same seriousness and the same goodwill,” Amir-Abdollahian says.
An Israeli official at the World Health Organization says the UN health agency believes the Omicron variant causes less severe morbidity than other coronavirus strains.
“From the information we received from Britain, it appears that the current cycle of infections isn’t suffering from serious morbidity,” Dr. Dorit Nitzan tells Army Radio.
Police officers arrested a Palestinian teenager with a knife in his possession after he attempted to enter Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station earlier today, police say.
It is not immediately clear if the 14-year-old, who had entered Israel illegally from the West Bank, had planned to carry out an attack with the knife. The teenager was handed over to the Shin Bet security service for questioning, according to police.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority announces that one in five wild cranes living or migrating through Israel have been infected with bird flu, with authorities expecting to remove 25 to 30 tons of carcasses.
Around 100,000 cranes visit the Hula Valley in northern Israel annually. Some 40,000 stay in the country until early March, when they fly north to Europe and Asia to nest.
After touring the valley, the INPA’s temporary director, Raya Shourky, says inspectors are checking the whole Hula Valley for evidence of the virus. They are also widening their search to water bodies in the Jezreel and Zevulun valleys, the Valley of Springs and the Carmel Coast.
The greatest harm seems to be in the Hula Valley Reserve, she says, noting the concentration of cranes there, and and regular feeding is stopping them from moving elsewhere.
The H5N1 strain of influenza, which can also affect humans, was first discovered several days ago at Moshav Margaliot on the Lebanese border, where the Agriculture Ministry has sealed off 60 coops that accommodate 244,000 laying hens.
The virus has also been identified at a farm on Moshav Neot Hagolan, also in northern Israel, where 17,000 turkeys are being raised in five coops.
The Agriculture Ministry is investigating a Moshav Margaliot farmer on suspicion that he tried to smuggle eggs out and sell them.
The ministry calls on consumers to buy eggs from reputable sources, check for stamps by inspectors and only eat eggs and poultry meat that have been thoroughly cooked.
WASHINGTON — US health regulators authorize the second pill against COVID-19, providing another easy-to-use medication to battle the rising tide of omicron infections.
The Food and Drug Administration’s authorization today comes a day after the agency cleared a competing drug from Pfizer. That pill is likely to become the first-choice treatment against the virus, thanks to its superior benefits and milder side effects.
As a result, Merck’s pill is expected to have a smaller role against the pandemic than predicted just a few weeks ago. Its ability to head off severe COVID-19 is much smaller than initially announced and the drug label will warn of serious safety issues, including the potential for birth defects.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized Merck’s drug for adults with early symptoms of COVID-19 who face the highest risks of hospitalization, including older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease. The UK first authorized the pill in early November.
Known as molnupiravir, the Merck drug will carry a warning against use during pregnancy.
The restrictions were expected after an FDA advisory panel only narrowly endorsed the drug last month, warning that its use would have to be strictly tailored to patients who can benefit the most.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates has recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since August.
The tourism hub on the Arabian Peninsula today reports 1,000 new infections — a drastic surge from record lows of roughly 50 infections just weeks ago, before the the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
The daily update represents a significant jump from the 665 cases authorities reported yesterday.
The UAE boasts one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, with over 90% of the country’s eligible population fully vaccinated. Infections had plummeted in recent weeks, and there were vanishingly few COVID-19 hospitalizations or deaths.
Authorities say the hospitalization rate for COVID-19 remains low, around 3%.
Although a mask mandate remains in place nationwide, there are few movement restrictions. Bars, restaurants and beaches are bustling amid Dubai’s peak tourism season. Hotels are fully booked through the holidays.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton condemns an incident in which a parent verbally attacked and threatened a nurse who was present at a school in Beersheba to provide COVID vaccinations to students.
In video from today’s incident, which appears to have been recorded by the threatening parent and has circulated on social media, the man follows the Health Ministry nurse as she exits the school carrying supplies.
“Who gave them permission to enter with all this poison,” the man shouts. “Who let you in here, who are you? Murderers! Villains! Killing children in cold blood!”
“Dogs, dogs,” he shouts as the woman walks to her car. “Let’s see where you’re going, sweetie, let’s photograph your car, your details.”
When another Health Ministry employee began to film the man, he shouts: “You’re a bunch of murderers!”
A police complaint has since been filed against the man, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) December 23, 2021
Several thousand Israelis demonstrate in the northern West Bank, calling on the government not to demolish a yeshiva at an illegal settlement outpost after a man who studied there was killed in a terror shooting.
Some of the protesters are traveling to Homesh on a convoy of buses, while others are arriving on foot. Among the demonstrators are Shas MK Moshe Arbel and several lawmakers from the far-right Religious Zionism party.
The rally comes at the end of the traditional mourning period for Yehuda Dimentman and days after his widow urged Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to prevent the yeshiva’s demolition.
שבוע אחרי רצח יהודה דימנטמן בפיגוע: יותר מאלף איש עושים את דרכם מהיישוב שבי שומרון לחומש בקריאה למערכת הביטחון לא להרוס לצמיתות את הישיבה במקום@carmeldangor
(צילום: חננאל רייזר, TPS) pic.twitter.com/L43nvn78ON
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) December 23, 2021
Three environmental organizations withdraw their petition to the High Court of Justice, claiming victory in a long-running campaign to stop an oil deal between a state company and an Israeli-Emirati business consortium.
The development comes after the State Attorney’s Office told the court that in the Justice Ministry’s view, the Environmental Protection Ministry has full authority to work against the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company, which wants to transfer Gulf oil overland from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
The ministry opposes the deal, saying it will not approve anything that endangers the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Eilat, which is home to corals of world importance.
The petition was submitted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Adam Teva V’Din and Zalul.
The deal has aroused massive opposition and weekly demonstrations throughout Israel.
BEIRUT — The Lebanese judge leading investigations into last year’s Beirut port blast was forced to stop work today over a lawsuit filed by ex-ministers he has summoned for interrogation, an official says.
The suspension is the fourth since Tarek Bitar was chosen to lead investigations in February.
It comes two weeks since Bitar was cleared to resume work, after a series of court challenges raised by political leaders derailed his efforts.
Bitar was informed today of a lawsuit submitted by lawmakers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hasan Khalil — both members of the Shiite Amal movement — which forced him to pause the probe until a ruling is issued, a court official tells AFP on condition of anonymity.
The total number of lawsuits against Bitar now stands at 18, the official says, most of which were filed by officials he is seeking to interrogate on suspicion of criminal negligence.
Rights groups and relatives of blast victims have repeatedly condemned what they have described as blatant political interference in the investigation. They say it aims to preserve a culture of political impunity in a country where even assassinations and bombings can go unpunished.
The August 4, 2020, explosion was caused by a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that was stored haphazardly at Beirut port for years. Top political and security officials knew of the dangers posed by the shipment but failed to take action.
The powerful Shiite terror group Hezbollah is leading demands to remove Bitar.
LONDON — A third dose of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines significantly increases the immune response to the Omicron variant, according to a new study by University of Oxford researchers.
The laboratory study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, compares antibody levels in blood samples from people who received two doses of vaccine with samples from those who had received a third dose.
While two doses provide much less protection against Omicron than earlier variants, levels of neutralizing antibodies rise sharply after a third dose, the study finds.
“In summary, neutralization titres against Omicron are boosted following a third vaccine dose, meaning that the campaign to deploy booster vaccines should add considerable protection against Omicron infection,” the researchers write.
The study also found that unvaccinated people who had recovered from COVID-19 probably have “little protection from reinfection with Omicron,” though they may have some protection against serious illness.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel says it will appeal to the High Court of Justice against the plea deal Shas party leader Aryeh Deri inked with prosecutors.
The plea agreement, in which Deri admitted to a pair of tax offenses and will resign from the Knesset, does not bar the Shas chief from returning to office.
“It can’t be that a public figure who committed offenses of this type can return in the future to public positions,” the group is quoted as saying by Army Radio.
It denounces the plea deal as “shameful.”
US intelligence agencies believe that Saudi Arabia has developed the ability to domestically produce ballistic missiles with Chinese assistance, CNN reports.
Citing unnamed sources, the report says officials at the National Security Council and White House were recently briefed on intelligence showing China transferred sensitive ballistic missile technology to Saudi Arabia.
The network also publishes a satellite photo of a site in Saudi Arabia where it says ballistic missiles are being produced.
דיווח ב-CNN: סוכנויות המודיעין האמריקניות מעריכות שסעודיה מייצרת באופן פעיל טילים בליסטיים, בסיוע של סין. עד כה היה ידוע שהסעודים רכשו טילים מסוג זה מסין, אך כעת נראה שהם מסוגלים לייצר אותם בעצמם. מצילומי לוויין עולה שסעודיה מייצרת את הטילים באתר אחד לפחות@itamargalit pic.twitter.com/tQ8TP1PoKZ
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) December 23, 2021
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s office formally announces that Shas party chief Aryeh Deri will be indicted as part of a plea deal, admitting to a pair of tax offenses in exchange for resigning from the Knesset and paying a NIS 180,000 fine.
A statement from Mandelblit’s office confirms he will not seek moral turpitude charges against Deri, allowing the leader of the ultra-Orthodox party to eventually return to the Knesset. Deri, a former interior minister, previously served time for a bribery conviction before returning to the Knesset in 2013.
“Concerning the tax disputes, I decided to take responsibility for mistakes that were made without any malevolent intent, to put the affair behind me and avoid an entire trial on the matter,” Deri says in a statement.
He also vows to stay on as leader of Shas.
LONDON — British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca says that a third, or “booster,” dose of its COVID-19 vaccine Vaxzevria “significantly” lifted antibody levels against the Omicron strain in a laboratory study.
AstraZeneca also reveals in other findings that its preventative moniclonal antibody treatment, Evusheld, “retains neutralization activity” against Omicron.
The threat of the highly transmissible Omicron variant looms large over the festive holidays, forcing many governments to roll out new curbs and urge citizens to get vaccinated.
However, separate UK research suggests that Omicron infections are less likely to result in hospitalization compared to the Delta variant.
“Vaxzevria significantly boosted levels of antibodies against the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant (B.1.1.529) following a third dose booster,” AstraZeneca says in a statement.
“The third dose booster vaccination neutralized the Omicron variant to levels that were broadly similar to those observed… after the second dose against the Delta variant.”
Levels of neutralizing antibodies were also higher with the booster jab than with individuals who had previously been infected and recovered naturally.
VIENNA — Talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will resume next Monday, the EU diplomat chairing the negotiations says, urging a “picking up of the pace.”
Officials have said the deal would become obsolete within weeks if Iran continued to step up its nuclear activities as it has been doing since 2019, a year after the United States left the landmark agreement and reimposed sanctions.
“Vienna talks to resume on Monday 27 December. The JCPOA Joint Commission will meet to discuss and define the way ahead,” EU diplomat Enrique Mora writes today on Twitter, referring to the acronym of the deal’s formal name.
“Important to pick up the pace on key outstanding issues and move forward, working closely with the US. Welcome to the 8th round.”
Negotiations restarted in November after a five-month hiatus to try to restore the deal, which was to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Diplomats from parties to the deal — China, Britain, France, Germany and Russia — are in talks in Vienna with Iran and the US, with the two sides refusing direct contact.
US negotiator Rob Malley on Tuesday warned of a “period of escalating crisis” if diplomacy failed to restore the agreement.
Iran claims it only wants to develop a civilian nuclear capability, but Western powers say its stockpile of enriched uranium goes well beyond that and could be used to develop a nuclear weapon.
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