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PA chief Abbas to Putin: West Bank poised for ‘explosion’

Palestinian leader cites land confiscation, ‘settler terrorism’ as reasons for rising anger in the territory

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on January 23, 2020. (Alexander NEMENOV / various sources / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on January 23, 2020. (Alexander NEMENOV / various sources / AFP)

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

Netanyahu ordered to return 30 gifts given to him during his time as premier

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is ordered to return some 30 gifts given to him during his 12-year term as premier, as they rightfully belong to the State of Israel, Channel 13 reports.

During a sitdown with the Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser, Shlomit Barnea Farago, Netanyahu’s lawyers say many of the gifts were not returned because “some were broken and some were lost.”

The network says Barnea Fargo was apparently not convinced by the explanations, and she is expected to notify Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will decide whether or not to probe the matter.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to right-wing opposition party members, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

A statement to Channel 13 on behalf of Netanyahu says: “The lawyers presented a detailed account, according to which some of the gifts were found, others were lost or broken years ago, and others were taken by staff at the Prime Minister’s Office, during a major renovation of the office.”

US children hospitalized with COVID in near-record numbers

The Omicron-fueled surge that is sending COVID-19 cases rocketing in the US is putting children in the hospital in close to record numbers, and experts lament that most of the youngsters are not vaccinated.

“It’s just so heartbreaking,” says Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It was hard enough last year, but now you know that you have a way to prevent all this.”

During the week of December 21-27, an average of 334 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 58 percent increase from the week before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The previous peak over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.

On a more hopeful note, children continue to represent a small percentage of those being hospitalized with COVID-19. An average of over 9,400 people of all ages were admitted per day during the same week in December. And many doctors say the youngsters coming in now seem less sick than those seen during the Delta surge over the summer.

Health Ministry adds mask requirement to outside gatherings, doesn’t tell anyone

The Health Ministry has apparently reinstated a requirement to wear masks at outside gatherings — but forgot to tell anyone about it.

Ministry director-general Nachman Ash signed a directive yesterday according to which masks are required in any gathering outside of more than 50 people.

The directive entered into force overnight, according to several media reports, but was never announced.

Israeli freed by Belarus after over a month in prison for cannabis in bag

An Israeli woman has been freed from Belarusian custody after being arrested with cannabis and is on her way to Israel.

The woman, Maya Reiten, had been detained for the past month and a half after being arrested at the airport in Minsk with 2.5 grams of cannabis in her bag. Reiten, a lawyer, has authorization to use medical cannabis in Israel. Relatives said the drugs must have been in her bag by mistake.

Efforts to free her involved personal appeals by President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to authorities in Belarus.

In a statement, Lapid thanks all those in the Foreign Ministry involved in efforts to bring Reiten back, in Israel and abroad. He says he has spoken with Reiten and her family to celebrate the news.

In November, relatives of Reiten had said she was being held in very difficult conditions. In a letter to her family, Reiten had said she did not know if she would last long in Belarusian prison.

Maxwell-Epstein victims ‘relieved and grateful’ after guilty verdict

Victims of the British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell and her former partner, the late American financier Jeffrey Epstein, welcome a jury’s decision finding Maxwell guilty of child sex trafficking.

“I am so relieved and grateful that the jury recognized the pattern of predatory behavior that Maxwell engaged in,” says Annie Farmer, one of four victims to testify in the high-profile trial, in a statement on Twitter.

“I hope that this verdict brings solace to all who need it and demonstrates that no one is above the law,” says Farmer, who was the only woman not to testify under a pseudonym.

Ghislaine Maxwell, founder of the TerraMar Project, attends a press conference on the Issue of Oceans in Sustainable Development Goals, at United Nations headquarters, on June 25, 2013. (United Nations Photo/Rick Bajornas via AP, File)

Theresa Helm, another Epstein accuser who did not participate in the trial, describes Maxwell as a “master manipulator.”

“Ghislaine Maxwell will never again have the opportunity to take anything from anyone. She will reside on the other side of freedom. Us — survivors — we go free,” Helm says in a BBC interview.

Channel 12 reports on costs of fighting the pandemic

Channel 12 reports on some of the costs of fighting the pandemic.

According to the network, over the past 18 months, Israel has spent NIS 29 billion ($9.3 billion). This includes:

NIS 6 billion ($1.93 billion) on tests
NIS 4.3 billion ($1.38 billion) on vaccines
NIS 500 million ($161 million) on antigen tests for schools
NIS 850 million ($274 million) on quarantine hotels
NIS 1.3 billion ($419 million) on staffing for various operations centers
NIS 250 million ($80 million) on public relations efforts

US voices ‘concern’ on Iran space launch but says committed to talks

The United States voices concern about Iran’s new space launch, saying it will help the clerical state’s missile program, but indicates it is still pursuing diplomacy in an effort to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

“The United States remains concerned with Iran’s development of space launch vehicles, which pose a significant proliferation concern,” a US State Department spokesperson says.

But amid talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 nuclear accord, she says, “We are seeking a mutual return to full compliance with the deal.”

TV: Hebrew U researchers expect at least 1,000 serious cases in a month

Hebrew University researchers advising the government on the pandemic assess that by the end of January, Israel will have between 1,000 and 2,500 seriously ill patients, Kan news reports.

The number currently stands at 94, but experts believe the Omicron strain could yet cause a massive spike, as daily cases rise to the thousands.

According to Channel 12, meanwhile, experts who met the prime minister today told him they believe there will be 20,000 cases a day by sometime next week.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with COVID-19, in Modi’in, on December 26, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

They also said they expect the current wave to reach a peak in about 3 weeks from now, with a record number of cases and of serious cases, before it starts to recede.

The report also said that because so many people will likely be in quarantine, there could be a shortage of key workers in all kinds of fields, among them teachers and bus drivers.

Abbas to Putin: West Bank poised for ‘explosion’

Israeli policies risk triggering an “explosion” in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas says in a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Palestinian state media.

The Palestinian leader tells Putin that Israeli settlements, land confiscation, home demolitions and “settler terrorism” are among factors leading to anger in the West Bank, the official Wafa news agency says.

“The continuation of these Israeli measures will lead to an explosion of the situation,” Wafa says Abbas told Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on February 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentiev)

Abbas speaks with Putin two days after meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz at his home. It was the first official visit to Israel by Abbas since 2010. Months earlier, Gantz had visited Abbas in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority.

Bahrain names its first ambassador to Syria in over a decade

Bahrain appoints its first ambassador to Syria in more than a decade, the island nation’s state news agency reports, the latest sign of a stepped-up outreach to Damascus by Gulf Arab countries.

The decree by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa comes as more Arab countries are improving relations with Damascus nearly 11 years since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed large parts of the country.

Early in the conflict, Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar rushed to back Sunni fighters battling Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Syria was expelled from the 22-member Arab League in 2011. Arab countries sanctioned Damascus and condemned its use of military force against civilians.

In recent years, however, the Syrian army has won a series of key military victories with the help of Russia and Iran.

The Bahrain News Agency says the king appointed Waheed Mubarak Sayyar as the kingdom’s “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Syria.” The embassy of Bahrain was reopened in Damascus in 2018.

Israeli who crossed over to Lebanon is returned through Rosh Hanikra Crossing

An Israeli civilian is returned to Israel through the rarely used Rosh Hanikra Crossing after he walked into Lebanon earlier this month, the Israel Defense Forces says.

“This was a very sensitive issue,” IDF Spokesperson Ran Kochav says.

The man, an Arab Israeli youth in his 20s from a Bedouin village in the Negev, crossed into Lebanon in the beginning of the month, Kochav said, but refused to specify on what date or where he crossed the border. It is not immediately clear why he crossed into Lebanon, though the IDF says he appears to have done so “willingly and knowingly.”

The man, whose name has not been released, allegedly has a history of mental health issues, as well as a criminal record.

An Israeli soldier opens the gates of the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon in northern Israel, on October 14, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

According to Kochav, the man was detained in Lebanon for several weeks as Israeli officials from different government offices worked to get him returned. He was sent back to Israel through Rosh Hanikra Crossing moments ago with the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

Upon his return to Israel, he was handed over to the Shin Bet security service for questioning.

Many details about the case remain classified.

Health Ministry chief okays 4th shot for immunocompromised individuals

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash says he has decided to approve a fourth shot of coronavirus vaccines for immunocompromised individuals amid the spread of the Omicron variant, “due to concerns that they are more vulnerable.”

Last week a panel of health experts approved, but Ash chose not to sign off on, the introduction of a fourth dose for Israelis over 60 and others at risk.

Ash says the panel’s approval meant he can decide when he sees fit to allow vaccination with the fourth shot.

Horowitz: We’re preparing for unprecedented infection, lockdown not on the table

In a briefing of health officials to the media, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says officials are preparing for higher infection rates than ever before amid Omicron’s spread.

But he insists things are “under control” and “we will continue living alongside the coronavirus.”

Horowitz says a lockdown “is not on the table.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz gives a press conference at Soroka Medical Center in the southern city of Beersheba, on November 30, 2021. (Flash90)

Leading retailers threaten strike over new shopping limitations

Leading retailers are threatening to strike if the government does not amend its new regulations limiting shopping, saying they are causing serious harm to their revenue while failing to change infection rates.

“We warned that morbidity would not go down an iota and that is what happened,” says Shahar Turgeman, head of the Association of Retail Chains.

“It’s a fake Green Pass,” Turgeman says of the requirement to only allow people with the certificate into larger stores, while all are allowed in most shopping mall spaces.

He calls on the government to cancel the rules that went into effect on Sunday by next Tuesday or face a general strike.

Israeli organization that cares for children at risk to advise UN

Orr Shalom, an Israeli organization that cares for at-risk children and youth, has been recognized by the UN as a professional advisory body.

The group will become involved in various events of the UN’s Economic and Social Council as well as various international bodies.

CEO Tali Halaf says she is “proud of the hundreds of our dedicated workers. This achievement is mainly thanks to them.”

Alleged victim of Chaim Walder dies in apparent suicide, days after he takes own life

A young woman who was allegedly a sexual victim of Haredi author Chaim Walder was found dead in Jerusalem today, apparently having taken her own life.

Walder, a popular ultra-Orthodox children’s author who was accused of sexually abusing women and children, was found dead in a Petah Tikva cemetery on Monday, and is believed to have killed himself.

Friends of the young woman say she had become distraught in recent days as some parts of the Haredi establishment feted him after his death.

Chaim Walder in 2011. (CC BY-SA Yoninah/Wikimedia Commons)

One friend wrote on social media that “she ended her life because her wounded soul could not stand the celebrations that were held for him.”

The young woman was laid to rest a short time ago.

Rights group says 45 Palestinian olive trees uprooted near Nablus

Some 45 olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers near the West Bank city of Nablus were ripped out of the ground in recent days, according to Israeli rights group Yesh Din.

The organization says some of the trees near the village of Burin were over 70 years old. It says heavy damage was caused to several plots.

Analytics firm: Israel’s vehicular density one of the highest in the world

With some 3.75 million vehicles on its roads, Israel’s vehicular density is one of the highest in the world, according to the latest report by American analytics company Dun & Bradstreet.

Though it has fewer cars per capita than many countries in the OECD, its traffic density is 3.5 higher than the OECD average, the company says. This is a result of Israel’s population dispersal, lackluster public transportation and an insufficient rate of road construction.

D&B says some 283,000 cars were delivered in the first 11 months of the year.

Illustrative: Heavy traffic on Route 6, near Nitzanei Oz, Dec 23, 2019.(Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Iran asserts that nuclear talks are seeing ‘satisfactory’ progress

Ongoing talks in Vienna to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran have seen “relatively satisfactory progress,” Iran’s negotiator Ali Bagheri says.

“Some written changes on the lifting of sanctions were established between the two parties and relatively satisfactory progress has been made over the first days of the eighth round of negotiations,” Bagheri says in a video published by Tasnim news agency.

His remarks come two days after negotiators from Britain, France and Germany described the talks as “urgent,” warned that “we are nearing the point where Iran’s escalation of its nuclear program will have completely hollowed out” the deal.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani is seen leaving the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna, on December 3, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

World heads into New Year facing COVID ‘tsunami,’ WHO warns

Millions around the world are bracing for drastically curtailed New Year celebrations as record coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant see the WHO warn that a COVID-19 “tsunami” threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems.

Coronavirus, first detected two years ago and declared a global pandemic in March 2020, has killed more than 5.4 million people, triggered economic crises and seen societies ricochet in and out of lockdowns.

The latest variant, Omicron, while tentatively considered to cause milder illness, has pushed infection levels to record levels in recent days in many countries, forcing governments to reimpose restrictions.

A medical worker tends to a patient at COVID-19 intensive care unit at The Institute of Clinical Cardiology in Rome, on December 30, 2021. (Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

From Greece to Mexico, from Barcelona to Bali and across swaths of Europe, authorities have canceled or curtailed public gatherings, either closing or imposed curfews on nightclubs.

“I am highly concerned that Omicron, being more transmissible, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases,” says WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Hamas drill simulates kidnapping of soldier, attacks on military targets

Al-Jazeera has reported on a Hamas exercise in Gaza simulating the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and attacks on Israeli military targets.

The Middle East Media Research Institute, providing a video from the drill, cites Hamas commander Muhammad Abu Nasira as saying the exercise is part of the preparation for a “war of liberation.”

Israel gets first shipment of Pfizer’s COVID-fighting Paxlovid pill

The first shipment of Pfizer's Paxlovid pills is seen being offloaded from a plane at Ben Gurion Airport, December 30, 2021. (Courtesy)
The first shipment of Pfizer's Paxlovid pills is seen being offloaded from a plane at Ben Gurion Airport, December 30, 2021. (Courtesy)

The first shipment of Pfizer’s Paxlovid, a promising pill to treat COVID-19 infections, has landed in Israel.

Israel is one of the first countries in the world to receive the drug, which lab tests have shown to be very effective against the Omicron variant.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett calls the pills’ arrival “an important addition to our toolbox in fighting the pandemic” that “will help us get through the coming apex of the Omicron wave.”

The first shipment consists of several tens of thousands of pills. The medication is said to cost the country around $530 per patient, though it isn’t yet clear what the price will be for Israeli customers.

Paxlovid is designed for at-home treatment of high-risk COVID-infected patients over the age of 12. Pfizer told the FDA that in a 2,250-patient trial, the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by 89 percent when given to people with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 within three days of symptoms. Fewer than 1% of patients taking the drug were hospitalized and none died at the end of the 30-day study period, compared with 6.5% of patients hospitalized in the group getting a dummy pill, which included nine deaths.

Paxlovid has only proven effective if given within five days of symptoms appearing. The treatment consists of three pills taken twice a day for five days. Two of the pills are Paxlovid and the third is a different antiviral that helps boost levels of the main drug in the body.

Cyber Directorate warns of WhatsApp invites to stock market groups

Israel’s National Cyber Directorate is warning Israelis of WhatsApp invites from unknown sources to groups with stock market tips, saying these have been widespread in recent days and are tied to a phishing attempt.

They say it appears the messages’ source is abroad and they lead to a request for personal details. It is not yet clear whether the deception is tied to an attempt to extract financial details, infect users with trojan horses or have some other goal.

WhatsApp users are advised not to click on any such unknown links.

Supreme Court chief fires back at politicians’ ‘personal attacks on justices’

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut says in a missive to Israel’s judges that ongoing attacks on the justice system by politicians “should disturb all those who care about the independence of the judicial system.”

Hayut writes that for a while now, “we have been witnessing bold attacks on judges in response to their rulings. These are personal attacks on the justices and have nothing to do with legitimate, professional criticism.”

Chief Justice Esther Hayut, at the Supreme Court on May 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesterday Likud MK David Amsalem, known for his brash style, attacked Supreme Court justice David Mintz for a ruling he issued on a petition Amsalem filed, suggesting he was drunk when he wrote it.

Amsalem, who had filed a peition against Defense Minister Benny Gantz over an appointment, called Mintz “deranged” and “mediocre” and called on him to resign.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of his allies in Likud have been attacking the justice system for years as the ex-premier stands trial for alleged graft.

Ex-Afghan president says had no choice but to flee Kabul

Afghanistan’s former president says he had no choice but to abruptly leave Kabul as the Taliban closed in and denies an agreement was in the works for a peaceful takeover, disputing the accounts of former Afghan and US officials.

Former president Ashraf Ghani says in a BBC interview that an adviser gave him just minutes to decide to abandon the capital city. He also denies widespread accusations that he left Afghanistan with millions in stolen money.

Ghani’s sudden and secret departure August 15 left the city rudderless as US and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years.

File: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Former president Hamid Karzai told the Associated Press in an interview earlier this month that Ghani’s departure scuttled the opportunity for government negotiators, including himself and peace council chairman Abdullah Abdullah, to reach an 11th-hour agreement with the Taliban, who had committed to staying outside the capital.

Biden, Putin emphasize need for diplomacy ahead of phone call over Ukraine crisis

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are emphasizing the need for diplomatic solutions ahead of their latest phone call aimed at defusing tensions surrounding the Ukraine conflict.

The call comes after Moscow earlier this month presented Western capitals with sweeping security demands, saying NATO must not admit new members and seeking to bar the United States from opening new bases in ex-Soviet countries.

The call this evening also comes ahead of talks between representatives of the two rivals in Geneva in January, with Washington saying it expects to discuss the Ukraine conflict and Moscow insisting its security demands be contended with.

Biden, who is at his home in Delaware for the New Year’s holiday, will stress in his call with Putin that Washington is looking for a “diplomatic path” out of the crisis, a senior administration official tells reporters.

“But we are also prepared to respond if Russia advances with a further invasion of Ukraine,” Biden will tell Putin, the official says, adding that Washington remained “gravely concerned” about the military buildup and wants to see the Russian forces return “to their regular training areas.”

World averaging 1 million new daily COVID cases

The number of daily new COVID-19 cases worldwide is averaging 1 million a day for the first time since the pandemic began two years ago, according to an AFP tally.

The figures for 23-29 December, the highest since the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, are based on tolls given daily by health authorities in each country.

More than 7.3 million new COVID-19 cases were detected around the world in the last seven days — an average of 1,045,000 infections every day — following a surge in cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The numbers are much higher than the last record before the current wave when daily cases stood at 817,000 on average between April 23 and 29.

Health care workers test Israelis in a drive through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police to allow mass religious festival despite Omicron, memories of Meron disaster

Police will apparently allow thousands of people to participate in an annual religious celebration despite fears of mass infections amid the Omicron outbreak, as well as fears for safety at the event months after a deadly disaster at another festival, Hebrew media reports.

The details of a deal with organizers are being finalized, but will apparently see the government okay a budget of hundreds of thousands of shekels to secure the event next Thursday.

Yesterday police had issued an injunction prohibiting the annual mass memorial gathering at the grave of a revered kabbalist in the southern town of Netivot.

Jewish worshippers pray at the gravesite of the Baba Sali during the annual pilgrimage held in his memory in the southern Israeli town of Netivot on January 30, 2017. (Yaakov Cohen/Flash90)

The injunction said police would not be able to ensure safety protocols at the memorial event for Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira, known as Baba Sali, which traditionally attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims.

Baba Sali is considered a man of miracles by many Jews around the world. His followers include a wide range of Jews from all sorts of religious backgrounds. His grave is one of Israel’s most visited Jewish holy sites.

The event is the first mass religious event since April’s disaster at Mount Meron, when 45 people were killed in a crush due to inadequate infrastructure and security.

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