The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they unfolded.
The head of the World Health Organization says he’s worried about the Omicron and Delta variants of COVID-19 producing a “tsunami” of cases between them, but he’s still hopeful the world will put the worst of the pandemic behind it in 2022.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urges everyone to make a “new year’s resolution” to get behind a campaign to vaccinate 70% of countries’ populations by the beginning of July.
According to WHO’s figures, the number of COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with nearly 4.99 million newly reported from Dec. 20-26. New cases in Europe — which accounted for more than half of the total — were up 3% while those in the Americas rose 39% and there was a 7% increase in Africa.
“I’m highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible [and] circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” Tedros says at an online news conference. That, he says, will put “immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse.”
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef comes out against the decision earlier today by police to ban the annual mass gathering at the grave of the renowned kabbalist Baba Sali.
Yosef calls the decision “unfortunate,” and calls on the government to reverse it to allow observers to gather “in an orderly manner.”
The annual event on the anniversary of his death, which falls out next week, will not take place this year due to security concerns, police said, warning people to stay away from the site.
The decision came in the wake of the deadly stampede at Mount Meron earlier this year during Lag B’Omer that killed dozens in the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history.
Many ultra-Orthodox groups have fumed at the decision and vowed to show up in the thousands despite the ban.
Tzahi Braverman, the former cabinet secretary to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, admits to shredding documents in the Prime Minister’s Office before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office, in a recording published by Haaretz.
In the recording, Braverman can be heard saying: “Before I left I even took some documents that were in the safe, gave them to my deputy and told her to shred them now. She shredded them, and that was it.”
Braverman denied saying such a thing to Haaretz, stating: “It did not happen. Every action I took in the course of my duties was done lawfully, and any other insinuation is false.”
Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for multiple counts of corruption, has already been accused of shredding documents before he left office in June, which his Likud party has denied.
The Health Ministry updates its guidelines to allow for those in quarantine due to exposure to exit after a negative antigen test.
Until now, only PCR tests were eligible to shorten quarantine. Under the new guidelines, a negative rapid antigen test can also be used, but not a home test. If the antigen test is positive, a PCR test will be required.
The new guideline only applies to those who are considered fully vaccinated (either with a booster or within six months of a second dose); the unvaccinated must conduct a PCR test.
Under guidelines that entered effect today, anyone who comes in contact with a COVID patient must enter quarantine. Those who are fully vaccinated can be released after a negative test, while those who are not must spend a week in quarantine with two negative tests (or 14 days without tests).
A network of Iranian agents has been targeting Israelis with political posts online and sharing information designed to inflame tensions, reports Channel 12 news.
According to the report, a web of Iranians using fake identities and profiles on social media, mostly on Facebook, has been sharing extremist political content with Israelis. In particular, the report claims, they have targeted prominent Likud activists with posts and memes attacking the current government.
The same profiles also shared anti-Netanyahu posts and activity in left-wing Facebook groups. The aim, the report claims, is not to support any particular political party but to sow fear and infighting among citizens.
The report did not provide any proof that the foreign profiles were being operated by Iranians, just that they were suspected to be so.
A 5.7 magnitude earthquake strikes off the Greek island of Crete, the Athens Observatory says, with no damage reported.
The quake struck at 0508 GMT with an epicenter in the sea 48 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Arvi, on the south coast of the island, the Observatory says.
No damage was reported but Greek firefighters were dispatched to the scene as a precautionary measure.
Greece is located on a number of fault lines, and is sporadically hit by earthquakes. In October 2020, a magnitude 7.0 quake hit in the Aegean Sea between the Greek island of Samos and the western Turkish city of Izmir.
The Health Ministry warns the public to take precautions amid a major outbreak of avian flu.
The ministry warns citizens to avoid coming in contact with sick or injured birds, and to not hunt such animals. In addition, people should only purchase chicken and eggs from regulated places that have inspection stamps.
According to the ministry, “care should be taken to thoroughly cook eggs and chicken, maintain hygiene and wash hands after contact with the meat or eggs.”
Thousands of birds have succumbed to avian flu so far during the worst outbreak of bird flu ever to hit the country’s wild bird population.
New US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides praises the meeting held last night between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Rosh Ha’ayin.
“So excited to see Defense Minister @gantzbe host PA President Abbas at his home last night,” tweets Nides. “May this meaningful diplomacy lead to many more such confidence-building measures for the New Year. It benefits us all!”
The summit marked Abbas’s first meeting held in Israel in more than a decade.
A group of high school students was attacked by rock-throwers in the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, police say.
A youth was lightly wounded and given medical treatment, according to the police, who reported that, amid the rock-throwing, an observer fired a gunshot in the air.
Police say that a 15-year-old suspect was arrested and brought in for interrogation for carrying out the rock-throwing.
The right-wing Honenu organization said that a staff member of the high school group was the one who fired in the air to disperse the attackers.
The IDF lifts its warning for farmers to stay away from areas near the Gaza Strip.
Earlier today, the military warned them to stay back and blocked off certain routes after a civilian was wounded by gunfire from the Gaza Strip. In response, the IDF struck sites in Gaza, reportedly wounding three.
Local officials say that farming activities will resume tomorrow morning as normal.
An international conference on a landmark Cold War-era nuclear treaty is poised to be postponed because coronavirus cases are surging in the host city of New York.
Already delayed multiple times because of the pandemic, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is supposed to start Jan. 4 at the United Nations’ headquarters, bringing delegations from around the world together to discuss the state of the 1970 pact.
But after the UN expressed concerns about the resurgent virus and said the world body couldn’t staff an in-person conference, participants were reluctant to proceed with the Jan. 4 date, says conference President-designate Gustavo Zlauvinen.
He says the event will be put off if no one objects by this evening.
“This is a regrettable decision, but the present circumstances do not leave us any other choice,” writes Zlauvinen, an Argentine diplomat and former International Atomic Energy Agency official.
The Knesset approves in a preliminary reading legislation aimed at limiting the ability of wealthy candidates to self-finance their political campaigns. The bill has become known as the “Barkat Law,” as it is widely viewed as targeted at Likud MK Nir Barkat, a hi-tech billionaire and potential successor to Benjamin Netanyahu.
The coalition votes down a version of the bill put forward by Likud MK David Amsalem and then approves, 64-17, one issued by New Hope MK Sharren Haskel.
The legislation will limit officials running for public office — and their family members — from contributing more than NIS 100,000 per year to their own campaigns.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid says that the coalition should not support the legislation by Amsalem, but rather the version from Haskel, since the firebrand Likud MK “leads a violent and abusive discourse in the Knesset plenum and shames the status of the Knesset.”
Iran’s football federation throws its weight behind former national team captain Mehdi Mahdavikia after he faced criticism for wearing a jersey bearing an Israeli flag during a friendly game.
“He is one of the greats of Iranian football” and “a symbol of pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” secretary-general Hassan Kamranifar says in a statement on the federation’s website.
Ultraconservative lawmakers lambasted the veteran player after he wore a jersey featuring the flags of all FIFA member countries, including Israel, during a friendly match in Qatar on December 17.
Mahdavikia “must apologize to the Iranian people for his act and must stand trial because he has betrayed the Iranian nation,” MP Bijan Nobaveh-Vatan said, according to the ultraconservative Fars news agency.
Kamranifar said Mahdavikia had handled the situation with “vigilance.” The federation spoke with him and examined the case “despite prejudice and sometimes unfair attacks,” Kamranifar adds.
Mahdavikia, 44, was named coach of Iran’s U23 team in July.
President Isaac Herzog hosts a traditional New Year’s Eve reception for the heads of the Christian churches in the Holy Land, alongside Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.
“We are all children of the Almighty God, the same God, and we all dream of a better world by filling it with peace, kindness, charity and mercy,” Herzog says. “We can do this together, united by our common values rather than dividing the world with differences.”
“As president of the State of Israel, I am wholeheartedly committed to preserving absolute freedom of religion and worship for members of all faiths in this Holy Land,” Herzog adds. “I know Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked joins me in assuring you that we will stand strong against any forms of racism, discrimination, or extremism, and we will reject any assault or threat on religious communities, leaders, or houses of worship.”
Theophilos III, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, tells the president that the church leaders are “particularly appreciative of your steadfast commitment to the integrity of the multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious nature of our region and your defense of the rights of all those who call the Holy Land our home.”
He said the leaders are “grateful for the declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land.”
Earlier this month, Christian leaders in the Holy Land warned that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups, and called for dialogue on preserving their presence.
The patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement similarly warning of the danger posed by radical groups they said are aiming at “diminishing the Christian presence.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid puts forward a new name for the future head of the Jewish Agency: former Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon.
“Dr. Ruth Calderon is a role model who can represent us at the Jewish Agency with her deep knowledge of Jewish history and the challenges of the future,” says Lapid.
The committee that selects the next head — to replace now-President Isaac Herzog — has begun inviting potential contenders to interviews for the job.
Those who have received a call to face the selection committee are Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who is co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council; former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon; former diaspora minister Omer Yankelevich; former Kulanu MK and ex-Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren; and former Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh.
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman sends a warning letter to Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau as disagreements over a government plan to reform conversion to Judaism reach new heights.
Yesterday, Lau informed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he will not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance a plan to ease the process and dilute the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it.
In a letter a day later, Liberman tells Lau that he is a public employee who must carry out his public duties as inscribed by law.
“The head of the conversion system is not elected by the public, but by a senior official in the civil and public service, and the decision to extend or terminate his tenure is in the hands of the competent state authorities,” Liberman writes, calling Lau’s earlier statement “an implicit threat, not to mention blackmail.”
Liberman says that if Lau follows through on his threat to freeze all conversions, such behavior “is not appropriate to the status of the chief rabbi, and may lead to proceedings being taken to end his term.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appoints a new head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.
Bennett taps Moshe Edri, a current Defense Ministry official who served for 31 years in the IDF, including as chief of special forces in the Air Force, and completed his service as a brigadier-general.
“Moshe Edri is the right person at the right time,” says Bennett. “His impressive performance, his in-depth understanding and his willingness to take on any task at the national level, left a deep impression on me even in my role as defense minister… I have no doubt that he will meet the challenges and the great tasks that exist in our regional reality.”
Edri will replace the body’s current chairman, Zeev Snir, who has been in office since 2015 and whose term ends in June.
An Iraqi police officer was murdered about two weeks after the Islamic State jihadist group kidnapped him, officials say.
The militant group had released photos purporting to show the decapitated body of Colonel Yasser al-Jourani, whom they had seized while he was hunting with friends in Iraq’s Hamrin region earlier this month.
One of his hunting companions was found shot dead, while a second who had been tortured later died of his wounds, a security source tells AFP.
IS overran large swaths of northern and western Iraq in a lighting offensive in 2014 before eventually succumbing to counter-attacks by government forces backed by a US-led coalition in 2017. Today, IS maintains a largely clandestine presence in Iraq and Syria and conducts a sustained insurgency on both sides of the border, according to a United Nations report published early this year.
Defense Ministry Benny Gantz dismisses criticism of his decision to host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a rare meeting at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin last night.
“Only someone who is responsible for sending soldiers into battle knows how deep the obligation to prevent it is,” Gantz tweets. “This is how I have always acted, and this is how I will continue to act.”
The meeting marked the first time the Palestinian leader held talks with a senior Israeli official inside Israel since 2010. The meeting was Gantz and Abbas’s second since the new Israeli government was formed in June. According to the Defense Ministry, it lasted two and a half hours; part of it was Abbas and Gantz alone.
The United States records its highest-ever seven-day average of new COVID cases, according to a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
The moving average of new cases was 265,427 as of yesterday, surpassing the previous peak of 251,989 set in mid-January 2021, the tracker showed.
France records more than 200,000 cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours, a new daily record, Health Minister Olivier Veran says as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread.
Veran tells a parliamentary hearing that 208,000 positive cases had been recorded, up from 179,807 cases reported yesterday.
“I wouldn’t call Omicron a wave anymore, I would call it a groundswell,” Veran says. “Given the numbers we have been seeing these past few days, we’re talking about a landslide.”
The Health Ministry promises to widen the exemptions to current air travel restrictions after the chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee threatened to overturn the current rules.
At a hearing of the committee, Labor MK and chairman Gilad Kariv says the current situation is intolerable — in which Israelis are banned from travel to more than a dozen countries — and calls for immediate changes.
In response, the ministry promises to expand the ability of Israelis to apply for an exception to the ban for pressing work in so-called “red” countries as well for a significant life event of a first-degree relative, including a wedding or bar mitzvah.
The head of Israel’s border authority also promises that a special mailbox will be set up to deal with humanitarian needs of those applying for exceptions who do not receive speedy responses.
After the agreed-to easing of restrictions, Kariv and the committee vote to extend the current regulations through January 5 — including the ban on tourist entry — and to remove dozens of countries from the “red” list beginning at midnight tonight, but to add Mexico.
Travel will still be banned to the US, UK, Canada, France, South Africa and several other countries. Israelis who return from such countries are mandated to spend a week in quarantine with two negative tests even if they are fully vaccinated with a booster.
Blue and White MK Michael Biton says consumers should not purchase products from Osem after the company announced a hike in prices this week.
“Israelis do not have to buy Osem products this month,” says Biton, the chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, lamenting the enormous market share of the company, and calling for the Israel Competition Authority to investigate.
Osem announced yesterday that it is raising the prices of its products by anywhere from 3% to 7%, owing to a rise in prices in basic ingredients. Osem is one of the largest producers of products in Israel, and sells pantry staples including pasta, ketchup, cereals, crackers and the popular peanut snack Bamba.
Armed police in Jingxi in southern China, near the border with Vietnam, parade four alleged violators of COVID rules through the streets, state media reports, a practice that was banned but which has resurfaced in the struggle to enforce a zero-COVID policy.
China has imposed strict lockdowns on millions of people to control the spread of the Delta variant ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Chinese officials admit that they have faced challenges getting enough supplies to residents in locked-down Xi’an, after the city’s inhabitants took to social media to complain they didn’t have enough food and call for help.
A Palestinian 17-year-old is sentenced by a military court to 19 years in prison for a stabbing attack on an Israeli civilian close to two years ago.
In January 2020, the teenager stabbed a 22-year-old man near the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron. The man received medical treatment on the scene for a stab injury to his shoulder and was taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in stable condition.
The attacker then attempted to harm two other people nearby before being arrested.
Rescue workers are searching for three men in their 30s who have gone missing during a hike near the Dead Sea.
According to Army Radio, the three men were said to be visiting near the Nahal Og stream near the north of the Dead Sea, but have not been seen since. Flood rescue teams are taking part in the search.
After a major storm last week, Israel’s streams are full.
Israel Police issue an injunction against holding a mass memorial event this year for the anniversary of the death of the Baba Sali.
Generally, a large gathering occurs on the anniversary near the grave of the late revered kabbalist in the southern city of Netivot. But police say that due to overcrowding and the lack of order, the event — slated for next week — cannot be held safely.
The police warned that “any violation of the order” will lead them to “take the necessary measures to prevent the entry of the general public and any public gathering in the compound.”
The Health Ministry reports that 1,849 Israelis are currently hospitalized with the flu, including 605 children and 124 pregnant women and new mothers.
New cases are continuing to rise among both the young and old, says the ministry.
The ministry says that the majority of those with the flu are infected with a strain that this year’s flu shot protects against, and urges vaccine for anyone over 6 months old.
The winner of Iraq’s October parliamentary election, Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, meets with rivals from the pro-Iran Hashed al-Shaabi former paramilitary alliance ahead of the opening of parliament.
The October 10 vote was rejected by the Fatah (Conquest) Alliance, the political arm of the pro-Tehran Hashed, but Iraq’s top court on Monday dismissed their allegations of voter fraud and ratified the results. It paves the way for parliament to meet and elect a president — who will then name a prime minister tasked with forming a new government.
Leaders including Fatah Alliance chief Hadi al-Ameri, senior Hashed official Faleh al-Fayyad and Qais al-Khazali, head of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq force — a key component of the Hashed — are hosted by Sadr at his home in the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf, according to state news agency INA.
The leaders discuss “the political situation” and the “formation of the next government,” INA reports.
Sadr, a political maverick and former anti-US militia leader who opposes all foreign interference, had already met leaders from pro-Iran parties earlier this month.
A vote on a government plan to significantly reform conversion to Judaism in Israel is delayed until further notice after not enough support could be garnered for the legislation.
The legislation, penned by Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky, is the subject of major controversy. Yesterday, Chief Rabbi David Lau told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he would not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance its plan to ease the process and dilute the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it.
The reform, initiated by Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana, would allow for conversions outside the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, authorizing municipal rabbis to supervise the process.
Ultra-Orthodox MKs pressured lawmakers in Ra’am not to support the bill, reports Channel 12 news, and some in Yamina also backed away from supporting the legislation, forcing its delay.
The Lod District Court sentences Barak Ben-Ami to life in prison plus an additional 20 years for the murder of his infant daughter and the attempted murder of his toddler daughter and his ex-wife.
The judge accepts the plea agreement reached in September in the case. As part of the plea deal, reportedly agreed to by Ben-Ami’s ex-wife, he fully confessed to his crimes and admitted responsibility.
In March 2020, Ben-Ami, 35, of Hod Hasharon, stabbed his baby daughter, Goni, to death and attempted to kill his wife and their other daughter and then take his own life. His wife and toddler were seriously wounded in the attack.
A new Kuwaiti government is sworn in, the oil-rich Gulf emirate’s fourth in two years, after the last one resigned in November amid political deadlock.
Kuwait has been shaken by disputes between elected lawmakers and successive governments dominated by the ruling Al-Sabah family for more than a decade, with parliaments and cabinets dissolved several times. The last government called it quits in November in the face of a standoff with parliament over reforms.
The cabinet was sworn in before the crown prince, the official KUNA news agency reports. It is the fourth government that Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Sabah has formed since his appointment as prime minister in December 2019.
Kuwait is the only Gulf Arab state with a fully elected parliament, which enjoys wide legislative powers and can vote ministers out of office.
Like most Gulf countries, Kuwait’s economy and public finances have been hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the slumping price of oil. In recent years there have been mounting calls for reform in Kuwait, where expatriate residents make up 70 percent of the 4.8 million population.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky says she has appealed to Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana to oust Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau over his threats to intervene in planned conversion reform.
“He is a public worker and his threats on the issue of conversion are unacceptable,” Malinovsky tells Army Radio. The MK serves as the chair of the Knesset Committee on Special National Infrastructure Projects and Jewish Religious Services.
Chief Rabbi David Lau told the prime minister yesterday that he would not approve any future conversions to Judaism as long as the government continues to advance a plan to ease the process and dilute the Chief Rabbinate’s control over it.
The World Health Organization says the number of COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with the biggest increase in the Americas. The gain follows a gradual increase since October.
The UN health agency says in its weekly epidemiological report that there were nearly 4.99 million newly reported cases around the world on December 20-26.
Europe accounted for more than half the total, with 2.84 million, though that amounted to only a 3% increase over the previous week. It also had the highest infection rate of any region, with 304.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.
WHO says that new cases in the Americas were up 39% to nearly 1.48 million, and the region had the second-highest infection rate with 144.4 new cases per 100,000 residents. The US alone saw more than 1.18 million cases, a 34% increase.
The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says three Palestinians have been wounded after Israeli tanks shelled sites in northern Gaza earlier today.
Gunfire erupted from the coastal enclave earlier today, lightly wounding an Israeli civilian near the Gaza border. The civilian, who works for a Defense Ministry contractor, was conducting maintenance work on the Gaza security fence, according to the Defense Ministry.
Israel responded by shelling Hamas outposts near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.
The identity of the wounded Palestinians was not immediately clear.
At least two members of a pro-government militia were killed in Tuesday’s purported Israeli strike on the Syrian port of Latakia, according to a war monitor.
The strike before dawn yesterday marked the second time Israel has allegedly hit the key cargo hub since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011. The attack caused significant damage with stacks of containers catching fire.
“Two members of a pro-regime militia were killed in the Israeli strike,” says the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked monitoring group with questionable funding. “They had suffered serious wounds and succumbed to their injuries” in a hospital in Latakia earlier today.
Three other militia fighters were also wounded. Syrian state media says the containers hit in the strikes carried “engine oil and spare parts for cars and other vehicles.”
But the Observatory says the cargo was “arms and munitions.”
The Israel Defense Forces did not comment on the Syrian claims, as a matter of policy.
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