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Netanyahu says pandemic will likely be over in Israel ‘within weeks’

PM claims that lockdown combined with vaccination campaign will make Israel the 1st country to overcome coronavirus crisis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

Israeli forces arrest Palestinian suspect in murder of Israeli woman

A Palestinian man has been arrested on suspicion of murdering Israeli woman Esther Horgen earlier this week in the West Bank.

Horgen was found dead in a northern West Bank forest in an apparent terror attack, after going out jogging.

The Shin Bet security service says the suspect, from the city of Jenin, was arrested after days of intelligence and operational efforts by the Shin Bet, the IDF and the Israel Police. It adds he is being questioned.

Reports say he has been previously convicted by Israel and served prison time for a security-related offense.

Further details remain under a gag order.

20 migrants found dead off Tunisian coast, others missing

Tunisian authorities say 20 African migrants have been found dead after their boat, which was trying to reach Europe, sank in the Mediterranean Sea. Five survivors were rescued and authorities are searching for up to 20 others believed missing.

Defense Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ben Zekri tells The Associated Press that Tunisian coast guard boats and local fishermen found the bodies off the coastal city of Sfax in central Tunisia.

According to the survivors, the migrant smuggling boat was carrying about 40 or 50 people heading toward Italy, Ben Zekri says.

Tunisian navy units are on the scene to search for any more survivors.

— AP

Within 40-60 days, Israeli risk groups can be 95% immune to COVID-19 — experts

A panel of experts advising coronavirus czar Nachman Ash estimates that it will take 40-60 days until Israel achieves sufficient immunity among 95% of the elderly and other risk groups, as the vaccination campaign gains steam, according to the Ynet website.

Citing a summary of the panel’s Tuesday meeting, the report says the experts contend that the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, which tens of thousands have received, will start showing its effect within 10 days.

Among those who got immunized, serious illness is expected to be reduced by 50%. If they are correctly chosen, that could prevent 80% of the country’s serious cases.

After three weeks, the second dose will be given, resulting in 95% immunity for the person getting it.

Cops summoned for questioning after chase that resulted in settler’s death

The police officers involved in the chase that resulted in the death of a teenage settler earlier this week have been summoned for questioning under caution at the Police Internal Investigations Department.

Ahuvia Sandak, 16, was killed in a car crash when he and others tried to flee police after allegedly throwing rocks at Palestinians in the central West Bank.

Husband of Esther Horgen hails suspect’s arrest

Benjamin Horgen hails the news of the arrest of a suspect in the apparent terror murder of his wife, Esther Horgen, in the West Bank earlier this week.

“We of course commend [the security forces], I was sure it was going to happen sooner or later,” he says in a statement.

“They did the job in a terrific way, and we trust the security forces and the courts, and of course expect justice to be served to the fullest for the despicable murderer.”

Benjamin Horgen (L) speaks to reporters alongside Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan in the Tal Menashe settlement after his wife was killed in an apparent terror attack on December 21, 2020. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Iran said boosting air defenses around nuke sites, fearing Trump-ordered strike

Iran has upped its air defenses around its uranium enrichments sites in Fordo and Natanz, fearing US President Donald Trump could order a strike in the tail end of his White House term, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas reports.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweets that Trump will “bear full responsibility for any adventurism on his way out,” likening such a potential development to the Gulf War of 2003.

Israel’s violin genius Ivry Gitlis dies at 98

Israeli virtuoso violinist Ivry Gitlis has died in Paris aged 98, his family tells AFP.

As one of the modern greats of classical music, he not only performed with the best orchestras in the world but never stopped experimenting, seeking new fans far beyond the elite.

Gitlis was as comfortable playing with the Rolling Stones or jazzman Stephane Grapelli, with African storytellers or gypsies, as he was with classical repertoire.

Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis performs during a rehearsal with Una Stella Baroque musical ensemble in Marseille, southern France, August 9, 2011. (Photo by BERTRAND LANGLOIS / AFP)

Hugely charismatic, he took “the time to meet people, to seduce them, to learn to like them,” Le Parisien newspaper writes of the musician, who lived in the French capital.

With disheveled white hair and piercing blue eyes, the maestro had a reputation for being whimsical, wild and narcissistic, playing eyes closed, often improvising rather than using sheet music.

The first Israeli artist to perform in the Soviet Union in 1955, Gitlis was also a staunch advocate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s cultural organization UNESCO.

— AFP

Sara Netanyahu gets coronavirus vaccine

Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, the premier says in a tweet. She is 62 years old, and therefore eligible to receive the shot along with all Israelis over 60.

Alongside a photo from the clinic, Benjamin Netanyahu says in the tweet that Israel has become the vaccination “world champion.”

Hosting US envoy to UN, Netanyahu says a lot more states to normalize ties soon

US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft is visiting Israel and met this morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s Office says in a statement.

Netanyahu thanks Craft for consistently defending Israel at the international body of behalf of the Trump administration.

“President Trump and his team have done wonders to dispel so many of the myths and slanders against the Jewish people and the Jewish state and we are eternally grateful for that,” he says.

“We think there are great opportunities. You can see the Arab countries, some have already come forward, others are coming forward… I think we should continue that policy and we’re going to see many, many more countries, a lot more than people expect and perhaps a lot sooner than people expect.”

Erdan also commends Craft, saying: “You were instrumental in triggering the snapback mechanism against Iran to ensure that critical sanctions remain in place. You truly understand that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat, not only to Israel but to the entire world.”

US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft (L) meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Thousands of COVID-19 results being delayed due to high number of tests

Thousands of people are forced to keep waiting for days for their coronavirus test results, as the number of daily tests reaches a record 90,000.

The computer systems have been overwhelmed by this, the Ynet news website reports, with the technical issue having begun earlier this week and not yet resolved.

As a result, many people are forced to remain in quarantine.

Ramat Gan mayor threatens High Court petition against nationwide lockdown

Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen is threatening to file a petition with the High Court of Justice against the decision to impose a nationwide lockdown for the third time, arguing that it punishes low-infection (“green”) areas for the missteps of high-infection (“red”) areas.

Carmel Shama-Hacohen, mayor of Ramat Gan, attends a convention for newly elected mayors and local council heads, in Ashkelon, November 27, 2018. (Flash90)

“The lockdown is in fact a price that the green cities will pay for the past mistakes of decision-makers,” says Shama-Hacohen, whose city is currently classified as “yellow,” or having a medium-low infection rate.

“I have ordered [my staff] to prepare a High Court petition, if the government response [to our complaint] won’t provide an answer or satisfactory data,” he tells Army Radio.

British, EU negotiators finalize post-Brexit trade deal

European and British negotiators have finalized a post-Brexit trade deal, officials from both sides say, as EU chief Ursula von der Leyen prepares to hold a news conference.

“A deal is done,” a UK government spokesperson says. A European Commission spokesman tweets that von der Leyen and EU negotiator Michel Barnier will speak to the press shortly.

— AFP

After criticism, government says kindergartens, schools won’t close at 1 p.m.

Israeli kindergartens and classes for half of the schoolchildren will operate normally during the upcoming lockdown, rather than stopping every day at 1 p.m. as planned, Hebrew-language media reports.

The government had been heavily criticized for that intention, with angry parents saying it wouldn’t allow them to work sufficient hours.

It was particularly ridiculed when reports said there was no epidemiological reason for the restriction, and that it was proposed merely to “create a feeling of a lockdown” among the public.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Education Minister Yoav Gallant, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Defense Minister Benny Gantz make the decision to have grades 1-4 and 11-12 maintain normal classes, and have kindergartens operate normally as well.

Grades 5-10 will not be attending classes in person at all and will study remotely.

UK leader Johnson confirms post-Brexit trade deal with EU

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirms agreement has been reached with the European Union on post-Brexit trade, tweeting: “The deal is done.”

Johnson, who won a landslide election last year on a promise to “get Brexit done,” posts a photograph of himself celebrating in front of the Union flag.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss says separately that the deal will lead to a “strong trading relationship” with Brussels and other partners around the world.

— AFP

Some 40 Israelis feared to have new coronavirus strain — report

Some 40 Israelis are feared to be carrying the new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus that originated in Britain, the Walla news website reports.

The report says a Health Ministry lab has received genetic results that are different from those seen with the normal variant.

There is no final confirmation yet.

Deputy health minister: Lockdown will likely continue for at least 3 weeks

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch tells the Kan public broadcaster that Israel should be prepared for at least three weeks of lockdown, since two weeks likely won’t be enough.

“The moment you open the education system, more workplaces and expand the circles [of permitted activities], the lockdown is less effective,” he says.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy makes similar remarks in a video briefing, saying that the lockdown could end up being longer than two weeks.

Graffiti threatening to hang Jews painted at Spanish Jewish cemetery

Graffiti reading “good Jew dead Jew’ and “murdering Jews we will hang you” have been written on the gate of a Jewish cemetery near Madrid, Spain.

The graffiti, featuring spelling mistakes in Spanish and some German-language words, were spray-painted in Hoyo de Manzanares, a northern suburb of the capital, last night, the news site 20minutos reports. The perpetrators also painted a Star of David with the word Raus, German for “out,” on the gate. Another slogan featured a mashup of the Spanish-language word for Holocaust and fairytale.

Graffiti calling for the murder of Jews at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery of Hoyo de Manzanares, Spain on December 24, 2020. (José de Isasa via JTA)

The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain, FCJA, calls the incident “intolerable” and says the culprits must be brought to justice.

The Madrid incident is the latest in a string of cases of vandalism against Jewish sites in Europe this week, including in Halle, Germany, where a monument to victims of a deadly far-right shooting last year near a synagogue was desecrated. Others took place elsewhere in Germany, Bulgaria and Belarus.

— JTA

Health ministry director: 180,000 got the vaccine, goal is 4 million by April

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy says that in five days, 180,000 Israelis have already been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Chezy Levy, the director-general of the Health Ministry, at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Herzliya on December 20, 2020. (Flash90)

In a press briefing ahead of the nationwide lockdown, Levy says 40,000 people got the shot today by the late afternoon and 65,000 got it yesterday.

“The goal is to vaccinate at least 4 million people during the first quarter of 2021,” he says, according to the Ynet news website. “We have enough vaccines to do it, and I hope we’ll fulfill that goal.”

He says going to get inoculated will be allowed during the lockdown.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 news reports that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has instructed Levy to reach 100,000 vaccinations a day by next week.

Court orders release of 4 hilltop youths after their friend dies in police chase

The Bat Yam Magistrate’s Court has ordered police to release four hilltop youths suspected of throwing rocks at a Palestinian vehicle earlier this week, in an incident that preceded a police chase of their car which caused a crash that killed another teenager who was in the car, Ahuvia Sandak.

They have been questioned on suspicion of throwing the rocks and driving dangerously.

The court says they should be released to house arrest under restrictive conditions.

Police ask for the implementation of the decision to be delayed until it files an appeal to a district court.

Fifth Israeli confirmed to have mutated virus strain

Another Israeli has been confirmed to have the new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus that is thought to have originated in Britain, Hebrew-language media reports.

The development brings the total number of Israelis who are confirmed to have the variant to five.

Up to 40 people are feared to have it, the Walla news website reported a short while ago.

Weekly cabinet meeting canceled, again

As has lately been happening frequently, the weekly cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday has been canceled, Hebrew-language media reports.

The development comes after the Knesset officially dissolved this week and elections were called due to the failure of the unity government to create real cooperation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Post-Hanukkah miracle: Each Pfizer vaccine vial okayed to inoculate more people

The Health Ministry gives approval to healthcare providers to extract six doses from each container of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than the five currently permitted, Channel 12 news reports.

The reported change will significantly increase Israel’s supply of the vaccine, allowing it to immunize some 800,000 more people.

A phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, December 8, 2020. (Liam McBurney/Pool via AP)

UK parliament to sit on December 30 over post-Brexit deal

Britain’s parliament will reconvene next Wednesday to try to ratify the post-Brexit trade deal struck today with the European Union, less than 48 hours before the agreement will come into effect, officials say.

“The Speaker has granted a request from the Government to recall the House at 9:30 a.m. on 30 December 2020 for MPs to debate legislation to give effect to the Agreement with the EU in UK law,” the House of Commons says in a statement.

— AFP

Feiglin won’t run in election; decries fixation on personas rather than ideas

Moshe Feiglin, who mounted a surprisingly successful Knesset bid in the April 2019 election before losing ground in the end and narrowly failing to enter the parliament, announces his Zehut party will not be running in the upcoming poll.

In a statement, Feiglin laments that the Israeli political arena has become too fixated on issues related to personas rather than ideas, leaving no room for ideology-oriented parties.

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Kfar Hamacabiah in Ramat Gan announcing Zehut’s withdrawal from the September elections, on August 29, 2019. (Flash90)

“The people politics has completely erased the ideas politics,” he writes. “We are left only with the crippling stalemate between ‘yes Bibi’ and ‘not Bibi,’ and as a result, it is impossible to implement any meaningful policy in Israel.”

He is referring to the fact that the main division in the country’s current politics are focused on either supporting Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu or opposing him, rather than on policy plans.

Feiglin asserts that the next vote will not break that stalemate, adding that he will consider running in the future if a fundamental change occur in the country’s politics.

IDF says additional suspects arrested over Esther Horgen’s murder

The military says additional suspects have been detained for questioning in the suspected terrorist murder of an Israeli woman in the West Bank earlier this week.

A statement from the Israel Defense Forces doesn’t specify how people were detained. The Shin Bet security service announced the arrest of a Palestinian suspect earlier today.

Col. Yair Peli, the head of the Menashe Regional Brigade, says the detainees are suspected accomplices in the apparent killing of Esther Horgen, a mother of six from the Tal Menashe settlement.

“The soldiers of the brigade and the IDF will continue to act to close the circle around all those involved and will work to destroy the terrorist’s home,” Peli is quoted saying in the statement.

— Alexander Fulbright

Hundreds of Israelis return from Dubai with their luggage staying in UAE

Hundreds of Israeli travelers who returned from the United Arab Emirates in recent days landed in Israel only to find out that their suitcases stayed in Dubai, Channel 12 news reports.

The report says the reason is a malfunction at the Dubai airport.

“I returned from Dubai on Tuesday, and I and half our flight simply haven’t gotten our luggage,” says traveler Nicole Roitman, adding that airport staff told her there was no point in making inquiries since “nobody will answer.”

Additionally, hundreds of travelers who landed today from Dubai are refusing to be taken to coronavirus hotels, as required in new guidelines that came into force yesterday, in scenes described by Hebrew-language media as chaotic.

TV: Associate of Netanyahu’s lawyer plotted to smear judges presiding over PM’s trial

A senior partner in the law firm of one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers has been involved in a scheme to undermine the corruption trial against the premier, Channel 12 reports.

Lawyer Ariel Roth, who co-founded a law firm together with Amit Hadad, who represents Netanyahu in the trial, allegedly tried to get family members of the judges overseeing the case to make remarks against Netanyahu.

According to the network, which says it has recordings of the attempts to talk up the relatives, that was an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of some of the judges, which would presumably result in them being replaced due to conflict of interest and in the trial being delayed.

Roth comments he has no connection to anything of the kind and doesn’t even know who the judges are.

Full details are to be published later today in the investigative television program “Uvda.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attorney Amit Hadad arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem for the hearing on the corruption cases in which Netanyahu is a suspect, on October 3, 2019 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Netanyahu says pandemic will likely be over in Israel ‘within weeks’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that he hopes up to 100,000 Israelis will be vaccinated every day by next weekend, and says the Jewish state could be the first in the world to overcome the pandemic.

“I want to tell you that the combination of the marvelous vaccine campaign on the one hand, and a short and quick lockdown on the other, allows us to get out of the coronavirus [pandemic]. And we’ll likely be the first country to get out of the coronavirus [crisis], within a few weeks,” Netanyahu says in a statement.

An Israeli nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Jerusalem on December 23, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sixty-five thousand Israelis were vaccinated on Wednesday, and the Health Ministry is aiming by next week to be vaccinating 100,000 Israelis per day. For now, Israel is vaccinating over 60s and at-risk Israelis, with the general public not yet eligible.

Chief rabbis refuse to okay COVID-19 vaccinations on Shabbat — report

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein asked the chief rabbis to okay vaccinating people against the coronavirus on the Jewish rest day of Shabbat, since it would save lives, Channel 13 reports.

But Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef refused to approve that, the report says.

Alleged terrorist snuck up on Esther Horgen and hit her on the head — report

The suspected terrorist who murdered Esther Horgen on Sunday in the northern West Bank has told investigators that he was waiting for a victim in the Reihan forest, Channel 13 reports.

The 40-year-old suspect snuck up on Horgen, hit her on the head several times and then hid her body, the report says.

It adds that intelligence about his possible involvement first came the following day. The report says forces came, gathered intelligence that he was home and arrested him when he tried to go up to the roof. According to the report, he didn’t resist.

The IF has published footage of the arrest.

Chief rabbi denies report he refused to okay COVID-19 vaccination on Shabbat

The office of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef denies a Channel 13 report that said the chief rabbis have refused a request by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to approve coronavirus vaccinations on Shabbat.

“There was no request made regarding an approval to vaccinate on Shabbat,” the office says.

IDF sentences commanders to brief jail terms over accidental tank fire into Gaza

The military hands down brief prison sentences to several Armored Corps commanders, after a tank accidentally fired a live round into the Gaza Strip earlier this month.

The mistaken fire occurred during a drill in the area on December 14. The tank shell hit an abandoned building, but there were no reports of injuries. The Israel Defense Forces said at the time it was investigating the incident.

“The investigation determined that this was a grave incident and raised a number of failures, mishaps and mistakes in the conduct of the commanders and in the safety aspects,” an Israel Defense Forces statement says. “The conclusions of the investigation revealed the commanders didn’t act in accordance with the required procedures before the exercise and during it, which led to the force’s misunderstanding that it was a real incident.”

The IDF says the commander of the tank platoon was sentenced to seven days in military prison. The company commander and his deputy are hit with 14-day prison sentences for their “overall responsibility for the incident,” according to the statement.

— Alexander Fulbright

Iranian hackers say they hacked major Israeli cyber firm Portnox

Iranian hacker group Pay2Key says it has hacked the computer systems of major Israeli cyber company Portnox, days after the same group hacked Israel Aerospace Industries.

The hackers publish documents related to firms using Portnox’s services, including Amdocs, Bezeq, Elbit, El Al, the Clalit health provider and more, according to the Ynet news website.

The Iranian group says it seized almost 1 terabyte of data and has published just 3 gigabytes of it.

Portnox said in a subsequent statement: “Several hours ago it was published that our internal servers may have been breached by a group known as Pay2Key. We are currently conducting an intensive investigation in order to understand the scope of the event.”

Pair of headstones bearing Nazi swastika removed from Houston Cemetery

Two German WWII graves bearing Nazi swastikas have been removed from Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in the United States and replaced with new headstones.

The pair of headstones had become a long controversy over whether they were historical artifacts worth preserving or emblems of hate that should be destroyed, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

The cemetery director, Aubrey David, led several workers to the graves of German prisoners of war Alfred P. Kafka and Georg Forst at around 8:15 a.m. yesterday.

“Clearly, it took a long time for this to happen, and it’s obviously the right thing to have been done,” says Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which advocates against unwanted religious proselytizing in the armed services.

After learning about the gravestones last May, the foundation demanded that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilke order them removed. The group also wanted Wilke to make “an immediate and heartfelt apology to all United States veterans and their families.”

The VA refused, saying that it has a responsibility to preserve “historic resources,” even if they acknowledge divisive historical figures or events. But members of Congress, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Representatives Will Hurd of San Antonio and Kay Granger of Fort Worth, responded by demanding the removal of the gravestones.

“I’m glad that the headstones have been replaced,” says Rep. Joaquin Castro. “It’s jarring to think that symbols of the Third Reich and the Nazi regime would stand in an American military cemetery.”

It’s unclear if a third headstone that also bears Nazi symbols in Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Utah has also been removed.

— AP

Regular Israel-Morocco flights to begin in 2-3 months: Rabat’s tourism minister

Morocco’s tourism minister says regular flights to and from Israel are planned to begin in two or three months, local media reports, days after an Israeli-US delegation visited the kingdom to seal the normalization deal.

“The signing of agreements, which took place on Tuesday, between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel is part of a will to reestablish regular air routes between the two countries in 2 to 3 months,” says Fettah Alaoui at a tourism conference, according to the MAP news agency.

“We welcome all Israeli tourists who want to come to Morocco,” she says. “These tourists will continue to come and return to Morocco and show it to other countries.”

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