The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says that severe restrictions on Israeli travel could be lifted as soon as next week.
“I have always been in favor of opening the skies, because we’re part of the world and it’s complicated to close the skies,” Horowitz tells the Kan public broadcaster. “I don’t know if it will happen at the end of this week, maybe a few days later, but it won’t be much longer.”
He says the reversal will likely come when Omicron is spread largely through communal spread, and not from those returning from abroad.
Currently, 68 countries are listed as “red” countries — including the US, UK, France, Germany, and many more — and Israelis are forbidden to travel to them without explicit permission from the exceptions committee.
Israel has so far recorded 1,118 cases of the Omicron COVID variant, and more than 700 were in those recently returning from abroad.
The demand for those returning from abroad to quarantine for seven days with two negative tests is expected to remain in place, even once restrictions are eased. Entry to even fully vaccinated tourists is not currently under discussion for the short-term future.
The Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer is slated to begin a study tomorrow on the efficacy of administering a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine.
The hospital says that the study will constitute giving 6,000 individuals — including 150 medical staff — a fourth shot.
The study, said to be the first of its kind in the world, is being carried out in conjunction with the Health Ministry, and has been approved by the government’s senior panel on human medical trials.
“This study will test the effect of the fourth vaccine dose on the level of antibodies, on preventing contagion, and check its safety,” says Sheba’s Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay. “This study is expected to shed light on the additional benefit of giving a fourth dose, and lead us to understand whether and to whom it is worth giving a fourth dose.”
The Health Ministry is expected to weigh ending its regulation requiring fully vaccinated and boosted Israelis to quarantine after coming in contact with a positive case of the Omicron COVID variant.
Multiple health officials have said throughout the day that such a change is expected to come sometime in the next week or two, as close to 100,000 Israelis are currently in quarantine. More than 40,000 of those are school-age children.
Senior COVID expert Ran Balicer tells Channel 13 news that such a change is expected, and Channel 12 news reports that it could come as early as next week.
For months, fully vaccinated Israelis — who either have a booster dose or were vaccinated or recovered in the past six months — were not required to quarantine after coming in contact with a positive COVID patient.
With the outbreak of the new Omicron variant, the Health Ministry mandated a 7-day quarantine for those who come in contact with someone with the new variant, or someone who is suspected of being infected with the new variant — even if considered fully vaccinated.
So far, 1,118 Omicron cases have been confirmed in Israel.
The Saudi-led coalition accuses Iran and Hezbollah of helping Yemen’s Houthi rebels to launch missiles and drones at the kingdom, where two people were killed.
Since the coalition intervened almost seven years ago to support Yemen’s government, Saudi Arabia has regularly accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with sophisticated weapons and Hezbollah of training the insurgents.
Tehran denies the charges. Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shi’ite militant movement Hezbollah has previously denied sending fighters or weapons to Yemen.
The latest Saudi accusation comes as the coalition intensifies an aerial bombing campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis, in retaliation for deadly attacks on the kingdom.
Coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki tells a news conference the Houthis are “militarizing” Sanaa airport and using it as a “main center for launching ballistic missiles and drones” towards the kingdom.
Malki shows reporters a video clip which he says depicts “the headquarters of Iranian and Hezbollah experts at the airport,” where, he alleges, “Hezbollah is training the Houthis to boobytrap and use drones.”
The footage could not be independently verified.
Plans to build 12,000 residential units on polluted ground at Tel Hashomer in central Israel have been shelved, following an appeal to the High Court by the environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din.
The court orders the National Planning Council to send the project back to the District Planning Committee so that it could reverse its permission to build on the site, and carry out a survey of the soil to check its pollution levels.
The appeal was based on the High Court’s rejection in May of a plan to build on contaminated land at Apollonia, also in the center of the country.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tests negative for COVID in a PCR test, says the Prime Minister’s Office.
Bennett, who tested negative via a rapid antigen test earlier this morning, exited the cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights early, after finding out that his daughter tested positive for COVID.
The Prime Minister’s Office says that everyone else in the Bennett family also tested negative, except for his son, who will take an additional test due to a fault in the sample.
Bennett will remain in quarantine at the moment out of an abundance of caution, says the PMO.
Israel’s Supreme Court rejects a petition filed against a plea deal cut between the state prosecutor and Likud MK Haim Katz.
The Supreme Court rejects a petition filed against the plea agreement that Katz signed with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last month.
Katz was indicted last month for corruption as part of a plea deal that will see him avoid jail time.
The former welfare minister was accused of advancing a bill on corporate bond repayment sought by a financial consultant who was a close friend and financial adviser to Katz himself, and of concealing those conflicts of interest. He is expected to plead guilty to the lesser charge, to serve a suspended sentence, to receive a fine.
Approximately 30,000 students are slated to return to remote learning tomorrow as new regulations come into effect, due to concerns about the new Omicron COVID variant.
The new rules will affect 918 classrooms across the country in nine different towns as well as several regions in additional cities.
Under the new guidelines, students in high schools and middle schools in “red” or “orange” towns — classified as such due to high COVID rates or new cases — will return to remote learning if less than 70 percent of students are vaccinated against COVID.
Ma’aleh Adumim is the only fully “red” city, but Rishon Lezion, Givat Ze’ev, Elad and other towns are classified as orange, and the Baka, Talpiot and Arnona neighborhoods of Jerusalem are also classified as orange, as are three neighborhoods in Tel Aviv.
Israeli firefighters are called to extinguish a car that was set on fire at the entrance to the Palestinian village of Funduk in the northern West Bank as part of a riot there, the military says.
Israeli security forces are working to break up the riot, according to the IDF.
No one was inside the car when it was set on fire, along the Route 55 highway. The military says the vehicle appears to be one that had been stolen.
The roadway was closed off temporarily, as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.
A 5.2-magnitude earthquake jolts Greece’s southern islands, but no damage or casualties have been reported so far.
The tremor struck at 5:15 p.m. (1515 GMT), east of the island of Crete and at the depth of 9 kilometers (5.6 miles), the Institute of Geodynamics in Athens reports.
The earthquake was felt in Crete and the islands of Karpathos, Kassos, Rhodes, and Santorini, according to local media.
An unrelated 4.0-magnitude tremor also hit at 6:14 p.m. (1614 GMT), west of Athens, the Institute of Geodynamics reports. The epicenter was at a depth of 16.7 kilometers (10.4 miles), it said.
Tremors of that magnitude are not uncommon in Greece, which lies close to a meeting point between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates.
Around 5,000 dead cranes are found dead at the Hula Lake Reserve in northern Israel, amidst an outbreak of avian flu that has also seen the culling of more than half a million chickens and turkeys.
Feeding is continuing since the outbreak of the H5N1 virus at the lake and in chicken sheds at Moshav Margaliot near the Lebanese border to try to keep the cranes from flying elsewhere and taking the virus with them.
The Agriculture Ministry has said that the farmers on the moshav failed to report the outbreak in real time, allowing it to spread like wildfire.
Qatar, the Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s electrical company sign a deal to advance a long-term project to supply Gaza’s only power plant with Israeli natural gas.
Qatar’s envoy to the Gaza Strip, Mohammad al-Emadi, says that today’s memorandum contains a pledge to invest $60 million in laying the pipeline for the proposed project.
The so-called Gas for Gaza initiative is a complex diplomatic dance, involving Israel, Hamas, the PA, Qatar, Egypt and the European Union, among other players. But the basic idea is simple: to replace the diesel fuel that currently powers Gaza’s electrical plant with Israeli gas.
Under the proposal, natural gas will flow from Israel’s Leviathan gas field, which lies off Gaza’s coast, to a power station in southern Israel. The EU and Qatar will then fund extensions to the pipeline to Gaza’s power plant.
The project has been in the works for years, and has been repeatedly delayed due to wars between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers. In February, al-Emadi said he hoped a final deal could be reached soon, only to see another battle between Israel and Hamas break out a few months later, in May.
France records more than 100,000 virus infections in a single day for the first time in the pandemic and COVID-19 hospitalizations have doubled over the past month, as the fast-spreading Omicron variant complicates the French government’s efforts to stave off a new lockdown.
More than 1 in 100 people in the Paris region have tested positive in the past week, according to the regional health service. Most new infections are linked to the Omicron variant, which government experts predict will be dominant in France in the coming days. Omicron is already dominant in Britain, right across the Channel.
Meanwhile a surge in Delta variant infections in recent months is pushing up hospital admissions in France, and put ICUs under strain again over the Christmas holidays. More than 1,000 people in France with the virus died over the past week, bringing the country’s overall death toll to more than 122,000.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government is holding emergency meetings tomorrow to discuss the next steps in tackling the virus. Some scientists and educators have urged delaying the post-holiday return to school, or suggested re-imposing a curfew.
Instead the French government is hoping that stepped-up vaccinations will be enough. The government is pushing a draft law that would require vaccination to enter all restaurants and many public venues, instead of the current health pass system which allows people to produce a negative test or proof of recovery if they’re not vaccinated.
The Health Ministry grants emergency approval to Paxlovid, the anti-viral oral medication developed by Pfizer to fight COVID.
According to the ministry, Israel has signed a deal with Pfizer for the drug and a shipment is expected to arrive in the coming days.
Last week, the US Federal Drug Administration also granted emergency authorization for the pill among those ages 12 and up. The drug is said to have mild side effects and has shown a nearly 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.
Patients at the greatest risk for COVID complications are instructed to take the pill within 3-5 days of the onset of symptoms, the ministry says. It is expected to be equally effective against the new Omicron variant.
The ministry did not say how many doses of the medication Israel has purchased and how many will arrive in the first shipment.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Alex Kushnir welcomes the resignation of Shas leader Arye Deri and the announcement by United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman that he will not run again for Knesset.
“I hope that the departures of Deri and Litzman signify an end to the age of Haredi wheeling and dealing, and after them will come a new generation of Haredi politicians,” tweets Kushnir, the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee who has regularly sparred with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers.
“A generation that cares about the public it is supposed to represent. A generation that cares about the interests of the public more than their own personal interests,” he adds.
Litzman announced earlier today that he does not intend to run for Knesset again, but claimed the decision was unrelated to pending criminal charges against him.
Deri was indicted earlier today on tax offenses as part of a plea deal that will see him resign from the Knesset and avoid being charged with moral turpitude to potentially clear the way for him to return to the government in the future.
Itamar Grotto, the former deputy director of the Health Ministry, suggests that it could be to Israelis’ benefit to be infected by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“It could be that we should think about such a policy… of letting people get infected,” Grotto tells the Kan public broadcaster.
The ex-health official suggests that in the face of the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, the policy of quarantine, even for those who are not vaccinated, is no longer effective.
He says early data from abroad shows that while many Israelis will become infected, rates of hospitalizations will not shoot up “like they did in the last wave, we won’t see that again.”
“It has to become more of an individual problem than a public problem,” says Grotto, lamenting constant quarantining of school-age students when a classmate tests positive.
United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman, 73, says he will not run in any upcoming election.
“If there are new elections, I won’t be running,” Litzman tells the Knesset channel in an interview. “I’m not going to the Knesset again. At my age… I’ve served in the Knesset for more than 23 years.”
Litzman immediately clarifies that it has nothing to do with the criminal investigations into his behavior, and claims that he has “no plea deal” lined up.
Litzman, who previously served as health minister, is expected to be indicted for obstruction of justice and breach of trust.
The pending charges relate to suspicions that Litzman used his former position to prevent the extradition to Australia of Malka Leifer, a former principal of an Orthodox girls school in Melbourne accused of sexually assaulting minors (Leifer was recently extradited after a years-long saga); and to prevent the closure of a deli cited for health violations.
Earlier today, Shas leader and MK Aryeh Deri was indicted on tax offenses as part of a plea deal that will see him resign from the Knesset, though he has vowed to remain in politics and return to lawmaking in the future.
The head of Iran’s judiciary grants Christian prisoners 10 days’ liberty to spend the holidays with families, in a rare move towards the minority community.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei instructs authorities across the country to issue the dispensation, according to the judiciary’s Mizan Online website.
“The decision is to mark the New Year 2022 and the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ,” the website says. Mizan Online does not say how many Christian prisoners will benefit from the furlough, or when the 10-day period starts.
It says, however, that inmates convicted for undermining security, organized crime, abductions, armed robberies and those sentenced to death would not be granted the 10 days of liberty.
According to local media, Christians represent just one percent of Iran’s total population of 83 million, the majority of whom are Shiite Muslims.
Most Christians in Iran are Armenians who celebrate Christmas on January 6, the day of the Epiphany.
Health experts reportedly advise Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to cancel the ban on Israelis traveling to “red countries” within two weeks.
According to Walla News, the cabinet of COVID experts tells Bennett to end the restrictions within two weeks, since by then most of the Omicron spread will be within Israeli borders regardless.
Currently, Israelis are legally barred from traveling to so-called “red” countries, which number 68, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, South Africa and many more.
Israelis who return from such countries must spend one week in quarantine with two negative tests, even if they are fully vaccinated with a booster.
As of last night, there are 1,118 total Omicron cases confirmed in Israel, with the majority of them — 723 — among those who recently returned from abroad.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s director of public health, warns about rising rates overseas of hospitalizations of children with COVID.
Alroy-Preis tells a government hearing that in both South Africa and New York, “a significant rise in hospitalized children has been seen.”
Locally, she says, Israel is seeing a rise in COVID cases among 12- 15-year-olds. Almost 62% of all 12- to15-year-olds have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, but less than 3% have received a booster shot, though most are not six months past their second dose.
Among ages 5-11, more than 14% have received a first dose of the shot after becoming eligible last month.
Of the almost 12,000 active COVID cases in Israel, close to 5,300 are school-age children, and more than 40,000 school-age children are in quarantine due to COVID exposure.
Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri is indicted on tax offenses as part of a plea deal that will see him resign from the Knesset.
Deri told the Knesset speaker last week that he will not use his Knesset immunity in the case. He intends to admit to not reporting income in two cases and is expected to pay a NIS 180,000 fine.
The plea deal will see Deri — who has previously served time in prison — not convicted of moral turpitude, allowing him to one day return as a minister, although such a move could later be challenged in court.
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi criticizes the decision of the government cabinet to hold a meeting earlier today on the Golan Heights.
“It doesn’t matter how many cabinet meetings are held on the Golan, it is occupied Syrian territory,” tweets Tibi.
“All elements of the coalition are responsible for the decisions made during this cabinet meetings,” adds Tibi, “as well as for the deepening of the settlements and the violence of settlers.”
The Ra’am party, which is a member of the coalition but has no ministers, did not take part in the meeting.
Left-wing Meretz ministers Tamar Zandberg and Nitzan Horowitz did attend the meeting, though Zandberg says the decision was “complicated. We support peace and hope one day it will happen.”
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej chose not to attend the cabinet meeting.
The Taliban dissolved Afghanistan’s two election commissions as well as the state ministries for peace and parliamentarian affairs, an official says.
Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban-run government, says the country’s Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaint Commission have been dissolved.
He calls them “unnecessary institutes for the current situation in Afghanistan.” He says if there is a need for the commissions in the future, the Taliban government can revive them.
Both elections commissions were mandated to administer and supervise all types of elections in the country, including presidential, parliamentary and provincial council elections.
Karimi says the Taliban also dissolved the Ministry for Peace and the Ministry of Parliamentarian Affairs, which he calls unnecessary ministries in the government’s current structure.
The Taliban had previously shut down the former Women’s Affairs Ministry.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz calls comments earlier today by Likud MK Gadi Yevarkan that likened COVID restrictions to the Holocaust “sickening.”
“The comparison MK Yevarkan made is sickening,” says Horowitz. “The comments are bordering on Holocaust denial, and it’s a particularly disgusting statement against medical workers who are giving their souls for public health.”
During a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee earlier today, Yevarkan angrily spoke out against the widespread use of the “Green Pass” system and other COVID restrictions.
“Do like they’re doing in Austria, that’s what you want to do,” he shouts, a reference to the European country’s decision to institute a lockdown just for the unvaccinated. “All that’s missing is concentration camps.”
Yevarkan was ordered to be removed from the committee hearing and was forcibly taken from the room by a Knesset security guard.
The bodies of 27 Europe-bound migrants, including a baby and two women, have washed ashore in western Libya, says the country’s Red Crescent.
The bodies were found late Saturday in two separate locations in the coastal town of Khoms, the Red Crescent’s branch there says. Three other migrants were rescued, and search efforts were underway for others, it says.
The dead migrants likely drowned in recent shipwrecks off Libya. There has been a surge in crossings and attempted crossings from Libya as authorities accelerated their deadly crackdown on migrants in the capital of Tripoli.
Around 1,500 migrants have drowned in numerous boat mishaps and shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean route this year, according to the UN migration agency.
The daughter of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tests positive for COVID-19, his office confirms.
The prime minister himself tested negative this morning via a rapid antigen test before beginning a cabinet meeting on the Golan Heights.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s Office says, Bennett exited the meeting and will remain in home quarantine, separate from his daughter, and undergo a PCR test according to the guidelines.
Earlier today, the PMO said that an employee in the Prime Minister’s Office tested positive for the coronavirus in a rapid test required of all attendees before the meeting.
The employee was immediately transferred into quarantine, and did not come into contact with the prime minister or any other ministers, the spokesperson said. Other employees who came into contact with the infected person tested negative for the virus, but were excluded from the cabinet meeting out of an abundance of caution.
Likud MK Gadi Yevarkan is kicked out of a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for comments comparing COVID measures to the Holocaust.
Yevarkan laments the widespread use of the “Green Pass,” which is available only to Israelis who have received a COVID vaccine booster dose or been vaccinated or recovered in the past six months.
“The majority of Israelis don’t have a ‘Green Pass,'” claims Yevarkan, adding that “millions of Israelis are without one; you’re leaving out millions of citizens.”
The Likud MK is asked to be quiet by the committee chair since his time to speak was over, but he refuses.
“Do like they’re doing in Austria, that’s what you want to do,” he shouts, a reference to the European country’s decision to institute a lockdown just for the unvaccinated. “All that’s missing is concentration camps.”
Yevarkan is ordered to be removed from the committee hearing by its chairman, Labor MK Gilad Kariv, and forcibly taken from the room by a Knesset security guard.
“Disgraceful words,” says Kariv, calling Yevarkan’s comments “a low point.”
The Jerusalem District Court sentences Eliran Malul to life in prison for the murder of his wife, Michal Sela.
In October 2019, Malul stabbed Sela, 32, to death in front of their young daughter in Motza, a suburb of Jerusalem. He was convicted of the murder in October. He was also ordered to pay NIS 258,000 for the care of his daughter, who is being raised by Sela’s parents.
For the first time, Malul apologized to Sela’s parents for murdering their daughter in a prewritten statement read aloud in court: “I would be happy if I could go back in time and prevent this horrifying tragedy, but unfortunately I cannot,” he said.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says his government is aiming to double the number of residents living in the Golan Heights and announces two new settlements.
“For many, many years there has been stagnation in the scope of settlement [in the Golan],” Bennett tells the cabinet ministers during a meeting held on the Golan Heights. “We have a big gap to fill, and we’re starting with that today.”
Bennett says that after many years without progress, “our goal today is to double the settlement in the Golan Heights.” He announces two new neighborhoods in the town of Katzrin, as well as two new communities to be named Asif and Matar.
The prime minister notes the recognition of the Trump administration of Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, and “the fact that the Biden administration has made it clear that there is no change in this policy.”
He adds that since COVID has proven how many people can now work from home, the Golan is a “great option for those who prefer clean air, space and quality of life.”
As part of the steps moving toward entering a visa-free travel agreement with the United States, Israel has agreed to allow Palestinian-Americans to enter freely via Ben Gurion International Airport, a senior Israeli official confirms to the Times of Israel.
Israel has for years been lobbying to enter the US Visa Waiver Program, and has made significant progress in recent months. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked recently predicted that Israel will be able to join the program within a year.
The entry of Palestinian-Americans into Israel has been considered a major sticking point in the negotiations. According to the Kan public broadcaster, the Shin Bet security service agreed to the terms of the agreement with the US.
Shaked said last month that a US committee is slated to travel to Israel in January for meetings with Israeli officials, “with the goal of obtaining a visa waiver by the end of the year 2022.”
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