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Woman with suspected Omicron infection dies as over 600 new cases confirmed

Eight patients with variant hospitalized, including two unvaccinated people in serious condition; Pfizer pill set to arrive Wednesday, prime minister says

Medical staff at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital wear safety gear as they work in the hospital's newly reopened COVID ward in Jerusalem on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Medical staff at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital wear safety gear as they work in the hospital's newly reopened COVID ward in Jerusalem on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Tuesday’s events as they occured.

No plans to ease overcrowding at Jerusalem virus testing sites – report

Despite long lines and crowding at testing stations, and long waits for results with labs overwhelmed, there are no plans to open more testing sites in Jerusalem, Kan reports.

As of Sunday, there were 2,188 active coronavirus cases in Jerusalem, the highest tally in the country, and a 32 percent increase over previous days. Two of the four towns deemed “red” high infection zones, Tzur Hadassah and Maaleh Adumim, are in the Jerusalem area.

Over 147,000 PCR tests were administered nationwide on Monday, according to Health Ministry figures, a figure that rivals record numbers seen during the height of the Delta wave, and long lines are being reported across the country.

Russia says it will discuss ‘very worrying’ Syria strike with Israel

Russia is signaling its unhappiness over a strike attributed to Israel on Syria’s Latakia port overnight.

While steering clear of confirming Israel carried out the strike, Moscow says that such attacks are “very worrying” for Syria after a decade of brutal conflict.

“We don’t think that any situations of this kind contribute to the stability of the Middle East or the situation in Syria,” says Russia’s deputy representative at the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy.

“We never conceal that we do not approve of such behavior,” he told reporters, adding that Russia would address concerns bilaterally with Israel.

The strike hit a container yard thought to house Iranian weapons shipments, in a part of Syria where Russia maintains its main naval base in the region.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, though its not known if Syria and Iran were among the topics discussed.

The call came immediately after Lavrov spoke to Syrian foreign minister Faysal Mekdad.

AFP contributed to this report.

Over 2,000 new coronavirus cases so far Tuesday

Over 2,000 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed so far Tuesday, putting Israel on pace to match or top Monday’s tally of 2,971.

As of 7 pm Tuesday, there were 2,079 cases nationwide, the Health Ministry says.

One new death brings the toll since the start of the pandemic to 8,243. Hospitalizations remain steady, as do the number of patients in serious condition, currently at 84.

Poland opposition leader says Pegasus hacking scandal a crisis of democracy

Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland’s main opposition party, is calling for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate surveillance after reports that powerful Israeli spyware was used against three people associated with the political opposition.

“This is an unprecedented thing in our history. This is the biggest and deepest crisis of democracy after 1989,” said Tusk, who served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007-2014 and president of the European Council from 2014-2019.

He said that his party would apply for the establishment of a commission of inquiry in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, to examine surveillance with Pegasus, spyware which is made by the NSO Group and sold only to government agencies.

The hacking targeted Krzysztof Brejza, an opposition senator, at a time that he was the party’s election campaign chief of staff in 2019; Roman Giertych, a lawyer who has defended Tusk and several other opposition figures in sensitive cases; and Ewa Wrzosek, a prosecutor who is fighting for the independence of prosecutors as the ruling right-wing party seeks to impose political control over all branches of the judiciary.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki calls the reports of hacking “fake news.”

He said he had no knowledge of any surveillance, but also suggested that if there had been any, it wouldn’t necessarily have been the work of Polish intelligence services. He said there were other security services in the world, some of who are “not entirely friendly toward Poland” and “act very ruthless.”

623 new Omicron cases confirmed, two patients in serious condition

The Health Ministry announces 623 new Omicron cases in the last day, bringing the total since the variant first broke out to 1,741.

The ministry says the death of an 84-year-old woman is suspected to be related to the variant. The woman was fully vaccinated, including with a booster.

Two people are in serious condition, including one person hooked up to a ventilator. Both are unvaccinated.

Six others are hospitalized with less serious bouts, four of whom are vaccinated.

Over 1,000 of the confirmed Omicron carriers came from abroad, the ministry says.

Only weeks left to save nuclear deal, Europeans warn

Envoys from the UK, France and Germany say that there are only weeks left for negotiators to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, accusing Tehran of enriching uranium to levels higher than ever seen in a non-nuclear armed state.

“This negotiation is urgent… We are clear that we are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program will have completely hollowed out the JCPOA,” the negotiators say in a statement, referring to the deal’s official name by its acronym.

“That means we have weeks, not months, to conclude a deal before the JCPOA’s core non-proliferation benefits are lost,” they say.

In response to Iran claiming that its enrichment levels are related to the needs of the country, the European negotiators say that 60 percent enrichment is still “unprecedented for a state without nuclear weapons.” Military-grade levels are around 90%, but only a short technical step away from 60%.

“Its increasing 60 percent stockpile is bringing Iran significantly closer to having fissile material, which could be used for nuclear weapons,” they say.

Ron Prosor to head Israeli mission in Germany

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has nominated Ron Prosor to be Israel’s next ambassador to Germany.

Prosor, a former ambassador to the UK and the UN, is going back to where he started his diplomatic career in 1986, when he was spokesman for Israel’s mission to West Germany in Bonn.

“The appointment of Prosor to Berlin signals the importance of Israeli ties with Germany and the continued strengthening of cooperation with the new government in Berlin,” Lapid says in a statement.

Israeli envoy to the UN Ron Prosor addressing the UN Security Council, on November 11, 2014. (Courtesy of the Israeli Mission to the UN)

Prosor, who has been stationed at Reichman University’s Abba Eban School of Diplomacy since leaving the UN embassy in 2015, says returning to Germany, where his late father was born, is a “closing of the circle” for him.

Israel’s current ambassador to Berlin, Jeremy Issacharoff, has held the post for four years, and reaches the mandatory retirement age of 67 in March.

Gantz: We won’t let Iran move ‘game-changing’ arms to proxies

Defense Minister Benny Gantz warns Iran that Israel will not allow it to spread “game-changing” weaponry to its proxies in the region, hours after the Israeli military reportedly struck arms thought to have been shipped from Iran in Syria’s Latakia port.

“I call on all countries of the region to stop Iran’s harm to their sovereignty and to their citizens. Israel will not allow Iran to stream game-changing weapons to its proxies and to threaten our citizens,” he says.

Israel has not officially acknowledged conducting the strike earlier this morning. Syria says the attack was carried out by Israeli warplanes over the Mediterranean. The bombardment caused massive secondary explosions at the port, apparently as the Israeli missiles detonated munitions.

Gantz makes his comments during a visit to the Ramat David Air Base, which is home to a number of F-16 fighter jet squadrons. He says the air force and other armed branches are “completing a year of significant operational activity.”

“This year as well we have acted against threats on various fronts, all of them fueled by Iran, which is the greatest enemy of my nation and to the residents of the Middle East,” Gantz says.

The defense minister calls on Syria to stop Iran from operating within its borders, saying the IDF would continue to act as needed to thwart Tehran’s activities.


Judge cites COVID surge in asking Ghislaine Maxwell jury to stay later

The judge presiding over the sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell says an “astronomical spike” in the number of coronavirus cases in New York City led her to urge jurors to work longer hours.

“We now face a high and escalating risk that jurors and trial participants may need to quarantine,” Judge Alison Nathan tells lawyers. “We are simply in a different place regarding the pandemic than we were a week ago.”

Late Monday, the judge told jurors they should expect to deliberate until at least 6 pm beginning Tuesday, rather than stopping at 5 pm, as they had earlier.

Last week, she asked jurors to work an extra day as it decides whether Maxwell recruited and groomed teenage girls to be sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein.

Laura Menninger, a defense lawyer, tells Nathan that any suggestion that the jury stay later “is beginning to sound like urging them to hurry up.”

“We would object to trying to urge them to stay later if they are not asking to do so and aren’t expressing any difficulty in proceeding with the deliberations that they are currently undertaking,” Menninger says.

Man shot to death in northern town, becoming 124th Arab victim this year

A young man has been shot to death in the Galilee town of Nahaf, becoming the Arab community’s 124th fatality from violent criminal activity this year.

The man, in his 20s, was shot in an open area of Nahaf and declared dead after being brought to a hospital in Nahariya, authorities say.

Police say they are investigating and the motive or background behind the killing is still unknown.

The Abraham Fund Initiative, which tracks stats on violent crime in the Arab community, says the killing is the 124th this year, adding to an already grisly tally that has far outpaced previous years. It says 103 of the deaths have been due to gunfire, and 60 of all those killed were under 30 years old.

Lebanon upgrading pipeline to receive natural gas from Egypt

Lebanon’s energy minister has launched a project to revive the Arab Gas Pipeline delivering Egyptian gas to Lebanon.

The move comes as the small country is reeling from a crippling electricity crisis. The pipeline has been out of service in Lebanon since before Syria’s 10-year conflict began in 2011.

Lebanese Energy Minister Walid Fayad says Egypt’s Technical Gas Services will begin renovation work on the pipeline inside Lebanon within days and work should be done in a little more than two months.

Egypt has agreed to supply Lebanon with natural gas to its power plants through Jordan and Syria. Syrian experts have finished work inside the war-torn country.

Despite US sanctions on Syria, Washington has supported the resumption of natural gas flow from Egypt to Lebanon via Syria.

Fayad tells The Associated Press during a tour of an oil facility that US officials who have visited Lebanon said the contract to bring gas from Egypt will not be targeted by sanctions because “no cash is going from any side to Syria.”

Bennett confirms anti-COVID pills to arrive Wednesday

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confirms that Israel is slated to receive an initial shipment of the first approved anti-COVID drug from Pfizer on Wednesday, which will make it the first country outside the US to get the therapy, he says.

The Health Ministry granted emergency approval Sunday to oral therapy Paxlovid, which has shown a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to suffer severe illness.

This image provided by Pfizer in October 2021 shows the company’s COVID-19 Paxlovid pills. (Pfizer via AP)

Channel 12 news said Saturday Israel had finalized an agreement to purchase about 100,000 pills, adding that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had spoken with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over the weekend to finalize the deal. The anti-COVID pill will be available for free in Israel to those in high-risk groups, the report said.

Sources close to Bennett claim he has a good relationship with Bourla but “doesn’t make a lot of press conferences about it,” issuing veiled criticism of predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett: Keeping quarantine policies would have created a de facto lockdown

Presenting new quarantine rules, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tells reporters that not doing so would have put the country in a “de facto lockdown.”

Under the new rules, fully vaccinated people exposed to any variant of the coronavirus will only need to quarantine until they get negative results from a PCR test. Unvaccinated individuals will need to quarantine for 7 days with tests on the first and last days. Under the old system, anyone exposed to Omicron would need to quarantine for at least 7 days regardless of vaccination status.

“We saw what was happening abroad and understood that if we stuck to what we were doing with regards to quarantine policy… we would have been in a de facto lockdown of 1 to 2 million people,” he says.

He claims that the country’s controversial move to curtail travel, keeping Israelis in the country and foreign nationals from being able to visit, bought five weeks of breathing room before the expected onslaught of the Omicron variant and will allow the economy to keep humming.

“This gave us an advantage over other countries, which are fighting Omicron and Delta at the same time. The alternative was to act like Holland, with a full lockdown,” he says.

Despite the fact that Bennett literally wrote a book titled “How to beat a pandemic,” sources close to the premier note that there’s “no guidebook” on dealing with the pandemic, defending his handling of the crisis.

They say he would rather absorb criticism for being too aggressive in fighting the pandemic than risk public health.

“Our goal is to leave the economy open and market open and stores open as much as possible, while avoiding stretching hospitals beyond capacity. If we wanted, we could have locked down, but nobody wants to get to a de facto lockdown by calling it another name,” he says.

Justice minister says Homesh yeshiva should remain, outpost legalized

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar is giving unequivocal backing to a yeshiva situated illegally in the former West Bank settlement of Homesh.

The unauthorized yeshiva has been in the public eye recently following a deadly shooting attack on people traveling from the yeshiva to a nearby settlement.

Sa’ar tells Ynet that removing the yeshiva following the attack would send a message that terror would be rewarded and give the attackers an undeserved victory.

“I’m for settlement and I’m for the law, there’s no conflict between the two. The yeshiva, if they have classes there, does not constitute a new settlement,” he says.

Border Police officers prepare to raze illegal buildings at the wildcat Homesh outpost on December 24, 2021. (Courtesy Border Police)

“From time to time the question has arisen of whether we should establish a new settlement there or not, but it’s never been decided,” he adds.

He also says he supports retroactively legalizing any illicit settlement activity at the outpost.

Last week, Border Police officers demolished several buildings at the outpost built on private Palestinian land, but left the yeshiva standing, amid simmering tensions between the army and police, settlers, and Palestinians in the area.

Homesh was evacuated and demolished in 2005 along with three other settlements in the northern West Bank. Settlers have made several attempts since then to re-establish a presence there, including by maintaining the yeshiva.

From left: Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Information Minister Yuli Edelstein, and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz visit the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the West Bank in 2009. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
From left: Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Information Minister Yuli Edelstein, and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz visit the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the West Bank in 2009. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jordanian MPs throw punches as debate on gender equality devolves into rhubarb

A live-streamed televised debate in Jordan’s parliament on constitutional reforms including gender equality degenerated into scuffles between MPs on Tuesday, forcing the session to be adjourned.

A heated row — amid much pushing and finger-wagging — broke out between deputies and parliament speaker Abdelkarim al-Daghmi.

The argument erupted during a debate on an amendment adding the female noun for a Jordanian citizen, to a chapter in the constitution guaranteeing equal rights of all citizens.

Several MPs angrily disputed the amendment as “useless,” in the session broadcast on Al-Mamlaka television channel.

Daghmi walked out and the session was adjourned to Wednesday.

Among other constitutional reforms to be discussed are the creation of a “National Security Council,” and the halving of the house speaker’s mandate to one year from the current two-year terms.

The kingdom’s constitution, introduced in 1952, has been amended 29 times, with the monarch’s powers increasing at the expense of the legislature, according to experts.


Iran, Russia say progress being made in nuclear talks

Iran’s top diplomat says nuclear talks in Vienna are proceeding apace and an agreement is possible.

“The Vienna talks are headed in a good direction… We believe that if other parties continue the round of talks which just started with good faith, reaching a good agreement for all parties is possible,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian tells reporters, according to Reuters.

“If they show seriousness, in addition to the good faith, arriving at a deal soon and in the near future is conceivable,” Amirabdollahian says in comments carried by state media.

Russia’s negotiator tweets that there is ” indisputable progress,” and that the sides are discussing lifting sanctions.


France shuts mosque over imam’s preaching

France has ordered the closure of a mosque in the north of the country because of the radical nature of its imam’s preaching, regional authorities tell AFP.

The mosque in Beauvais, a town of 50,000 people some 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Paris, will remain shut for six months, according to the prefecture of the Oise region where Beauvais is located.

It says the sermons there incite hatred, violence and “defend jihad.”

The move on the mosque, which has a congregation of about 400, comes two weeks after Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said he had triggered the procedure to close the site because the imam there “is targeting Christians, homosexuals and Jews” in his sermons. This, the minister said, was “unacceptable.”

The authorities say the imam, who the association claims had preached only occasionally and had now been suspended, was in fact a regular presence at the mosque, according to the official document citing the reasons for the closure seen by AFP.

It says the imam had called the jihad, a term for war against the enemies of Islam, a “duty,” and had glorified its fighters as “heroes” who protected Islam against Western influence.

He had also labeled non-Muslims as “enemies,” it says.

“The terrorist threat remains at a very high level” and the closure had “the aim of forestalling acts of terrorism being committed,” the document says.

Former aide: Netanyahu got Sheldon Adelson to start Israel Hayom

Nir Hefetz, a former aide to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is alleging that his former boss didn’t only wield influence over Israel Hayom, but actively pushed the establishment of the free tabloid in order to blunt Yedioth Ahronoth.

“Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in recruiting Sheldon Adelson to establish a paper that would take down Yedioth Ahronoth,” Hefetz says from the stand. “Netanyahu’s claims that [Yedioth publisher Arnon] Mozes was exploiting him are hypocrisy.”

Hefetz is the state’s key witness in the corruption trial against Netanyahu, which includes charges that he tried to make a deal with Mozes for softer coverage of him in exchange for legislation to curb Israel Hayom’s reach.

A man passes out the free newspaper Israel Hayom to passersby on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, January 4, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper widely considered to be a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, started operating in 2007 under Adelson, a casino magnate who died earlier this year. It quickly overtook Yedioth Ahronoth in circulation, thanks to its aggressive distribution and free price point.

Justice minister seeks new Supreme Court candidates to break appointments deadlock

Justuce Minister Gideon Sa’ar has reopened a window for new candidates to be added to a list of possible Supreme Court nominees.

The move comes after members of the committee tasked with judicial appointments have repeatedly failed to agree on candidates from the existing list.

The selection panel — made up of Sa’ar, Hayut, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, MKs Efrat Rayten and Simcha Rothman, Supreme Court justices Uzi Vogelman and Yitzhak Amit, and two Israel Bar Association attorneys — was unable to reach any agreement to select four names from the 24 potential candidates for the jobs.

Shaked and Rothman are lobbying for more conservative-leaning judges to be appointed, while Hayut and other members of the panel have been pushing for liberal justices. Members of the Israel Bar Association have also been pushing for one of the seats to be filled by an attorney, not a judge.

New candidates must be added to the list by January 6 midday, according to a statement Sa’ar sends to the appointments committee.

Earlier this month, Sa’ar made the rare move of appointing a temporary judge to the bench, due to gridlock in the selection panel.


Spain reports highest-ever coronavirus case load, restrictions mulled

Spain is dealing with the highest ever number of coronavirus infections, with some regions considering further curbs on social life ahead of the end of the year.

Updating pandemic figures for the first time in four days, health authorities reported 214,619 new cases late on Monday, bringing the 14-day national caseload to a pandemic record level of 1,206 new infections per 100,000 residents. At the height of the January surge, which until now was the one that infected most people in Spain, the rate had surged to 900.

The explosive spike is largely blamed on the Omicron variant, which scientists say spreads faster than previous strains although the number of infected patients who need hospital care is proportionally less than in previous surges. Official data shows that 7.5% of Spanish hospital beds and 18% of intensive care units are treating COVID-19 patients.

Authorities reported 120 new deaths since December 23.

In response to the soaring caseload, some Spanish regions are now considering restrictions they resisted only a week ago, when authorities only imposed mandatory mask wearing outdoors.

The northern regions of Navarra, Aragón and Cantabria, among others, are now limiting nightlife, imposing curfews or considering caps on members of different households allowed to gather together.

Ex-SodaStream boss indicted on insider trading charges — reports

The former CEO of SodaStream and an associate have been indicted on charges of insider trading, according to Hebrew media reports.

Daniel Birnbaum is accused of giving information to Ayala Cohen regarding positive periodic reports before they were published, allowing her to buy shares and make a profit.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum dances with employees during a Ramadan iftar breakfast at the Rahat factory on May 27, 2019. (courtesy SodaStream)

In one instance, according to the indictment, Cohen spent most of her liquidity on NIS 150,000 of SodaStream stock, quickly turning it around for a profit of NIS 28,000, after getting a tip from Birnbaum.

The allegations came to light in 2019, shortly after PepsiCo paid $3.2 billion, or $144 a share, for SodaStream, in one of the largest buyouts in Israel’s history.

Russia orders prominent human rights group shut down

Russia’s Supreme Court has ruled that one of the country’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations should be shut down, a move that stirred up much public outrage and is the latest step in a months-long crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.

The Prosecutor General’s Office last month petitioned the Supreme Court to revoke the legal status of Memorial — an international human rights group that rose to prominence for its studies of political repression in the Soviet Union and currently encompasses more than 50 smaller groups in Russia and abroad.

The court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the prosecution, which charged at the hearing that Memorial “creates a false image of the USSR as a terrorist state, whitewashes and rehabilitates Nazi criminals.”

Memorial was declared a “foreign agent” in 2016 — a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that can discredit the targeted organization. In their lawsuit to shut it down, prosecutors alleged that the group repeatedly violated regulations obliging it to mark itself as a foreign agent, and tried to conceal the designation.

Memorial and its supporters have maintained the accusations are politically motivated, and the organization’s leaders have vowed to continue their work even if the court shuts it down.

Netanyahu threatened Yedioth publisher, tried to sic rival paper on him — ex-aide

Former Netanyahu spokesman Nir Hefetz testifies at the trial of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that there were times when the former prime minister demanded that the Israel Hayom tabloid go after the publisher of rival paper Yedioth Ahronoth.

“I was witness to conversations in which Netanyahu demanded that Israel Hayom go full force after [Arnon] Mozes personally,” Hefetz says under cross-examination.

Nir Hefetz at the Jerusalem District Court in Jerusalem on December 7, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is accused in one of the three cases against him of attempting to reach a deal with Mozes in which Mozes’s paper would moderate its coverage of him in exchange for legislation to hobble Israel Hayom. Mozes is also accused in the case.

Hefetz says that Netanyahu threatened Mozes by saying that he had “personal information” about him, but he was never privy to what information Netanyahu supposedly had.

Latakia port blaze finally put out after alleged Israeli barrage

The governor of Syria’s Latakia province says firefighters have managed to extinguish a large blaze that broke out at a shipping facility overnight during an alleged Israeli airstrike.

Ismail Hilal says crews are still dousing the embers but most of the fire has been put out after containers were removed, SANA reports.

Pictures released by SANA showed firefighters training hoses on stacks of blazing containers that lit up the night sky.

The news agency said the containers were carrying “engine oil and spare parts for cars and other vehicles.”

But Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says the cargo was “arms and munitions,” which had detonated in “powerful explosions that were felt across the city of Latakia and its suburbs.”

Syria’s state-run al-Ikhbariyah TV ran footage showing flames and smoke rising from the terminal. It reported damage to nearby residential buildings, a hospital, shops and some tourist sites near the port.

An al-Ikhbariyah TV reporter in the area said the attack appeared to have been larger than the strike earlier this month and the explosions could be heard in Tartus, another coastal city more than 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) away.

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