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Netanyahu threatens more restrictions as new data shows virus spread worsening

Preliminary Health Ministry figures show over 4 percent of tests coming back positive; coronavirus cabinet meet ends without decision on closing shops or other possible moves

People walking in Jerusalem's city center on December 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People walking in Jerusalem's city center on December 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.

Saudi prince unloads on Israel, Ashkenazi at Bahrain summit

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal unleashes a blistering attack on Israel at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, catching Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi off-guard, particularly as Israelis receive warm welcomes from officials in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates following agreements to normalize ties.

Israel has “incarcerated [Palestinians] in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice,” Prince Turki says. “They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.”

The prince also criticizes Israel’s reported undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons, and Israeli governments “unleashing their political minions and their media outlets from other countries to denigrate and demonize Saudi Arabia.”

The prince reiterates the kingdom’s official position that the solution lies in implementing the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Saudi-sponsored deal that offers Israel full ties with all Arab states in return for Palestinian statehood on territory Israel captured in 1967.

“You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers,” he adds.

Ashkenazi says he “regrets” the comments.

“I don’t believe that they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East,” he says.

— AP

Over one in three virus tests in Gaza positive — ministry

As coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip surge to new heights, around one in three coronavirus tests in the coastal enclave over the past 24 hours has come back positive, the Hamas health ministry says.

The Gaza Strip has 10,493 active coronavirus infections, the vast majority of which were identified over the past three weeks. Hamas authorities have ordered a nightly curfew in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

But the number of daily coronavirus tests in the coastal enclave has been steadily declining despite a large increase in recorded coronavirus infection. Only 2,000 tests were done in Gaza over the past 24 hours. Around 36% came back positive for the virus, resulting in 726 new cases on Sunday morning.

— Aaron Boxerman

Officials clear out Ikea that opened against guidelines

City officials have emptied an Ikea in the city of Rishon Lezion that opened against health guidelines, threatening to fine anyone who is there, Channel 12 news reports.

According to Kan, the store’s managers have been threatened with NIS 5,000 fines every 90 minutes if they don’t shut down.

Illustrative: Israelis wait outside the IKEA branch in Netanya, after the company opened some of its branches in Israel, on April 26, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

According to Channel 12 news, Ikea had opened parts of its Israel stores Sunday morning that it classified as essential, after having claimed last month that it had a legal opinion giving it the right to do so. That included sections selling food and other items that “essential” homewares stores have been able to sell.

Videos and pictures show that hundreds of Israelis flocked to the flat-pack giant despite the guidelines forbidding it from opening.

Police say they handed out over 5,300 tickets for coronavirus guideline violations over the weekend, the vast majority of them for mask misdemeanors.


More cyberattacks targeting UAE since normalization — official

The head of cybersecurity in the United Arab Emirates says the kingdom has suffered several cyberattacks on its financial sector since agreeing to normalize ties with Israel.

“Our relationship, for example, with the normalization with Israel really opened a whole huge attacks from some other activists against the UAE,” Mohamed Hamad al-Kuwaiti says at a conference in Dubai, according to Reuters.

He does not elaborate on the nature or source of the attacks.

Russia hits new virus infection high with nearly 30,000 new cases

Coronavirus infections in Russia hit a new record on Sunday, as the country’s authorities registered 29,039 new confirmed cases, the highest daily spike in the pandemic.

Russia’s total of over 2.4 million reported infections remains the fourth largest caseload in the world. Russia has also reported 43,141 virus-related deaths.

Russia has been swept by a resurgence of the virus this fall, with daily confirmed infections and deaths significantly exceeding those reported in the spring. Nevertheless, Russian authorities have rejected the idea of another nationwide lockdown or any widespread closures of businesses.

On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin ordered a “large-scale” vaccination against COVID-19 to begin in Russia with the domestically developed Sputnik V vaccine that is still undergoing advanced studies needed to ensure its safety and effectiveness. Doctors and teachers will be first in line to get inoculated, Putin said.

Sputnik V has been offered to medical workers for several months even though the vaccine was still in the middle of advanced trials. Several top Russian officials said they had already gotten the required two jabs. The Russian military this week began vaccinating the crews of navy ships scheduled to depart on a mission.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said Wednesday that more than 100,000 people in Russia have already received the shots.

— AP

Thousands evacuated in Frankfurt as WWII bomb defused

Nearly 13,000 residents have been evacuated in Frankfurt as experts defuse an unexploded World War II bomb, local emergency services say.

The 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) British bomb had been found on a construction site in Germany’s financial capital on Thursday, the emergency services says.

People leave their home area in the Gallus district in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, during an evacuation on early morning of December 6, 2020.(Armando BABANI / AFP)

A 700-meter (half-mile) evacuation radius was set up in the west of the city center, in an area that included a number of old people’s homes, heating and internet infrastructure and facilities of the Deutsche Bahn national rail operator.

The work is expected to continue into the evening because of coronavirus restrictions, the authorities say.

Revolutionary Guards say satellite-controlled device used in hit on scientist Fakhrizadeh

A spokesman for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps says that “advanced satellite-controlled electronic instruments,” were used in the assassination of leading nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on November 27, according to Tasnim news, which is closely linked to the IRGC.

Claims of a satellite-guided remotely controlled rifle used in the assassination were earlier made by Ali Shamkhani, senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, and have filtered into various unconfirmed accounts of the killing, which remains under a thick fog.

Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist who was killed on Friday, during a funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif adds that Israel, which has been blamed for the attack, should expect payback, and claims that 2,800 “elites of regional Islamic nations” have been assassinated by Israel over the last 70 years.

Blue and White demanding info on vaccines from other half of government

Channel 12 reports that ministers from the Blue and White party are demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and health officials bring them up to date on Israel’s plans to receive and distribute coronavirus vaccines, ahead of a coronavirus cabinet meeting set to start at 4 p.m.

Members of the party have complained about the steering panel essentially stopping functioning with the coalition torn asunder by a budget battle that has set the stage for early elections.

The channel reports that Blue and White ministers want to know how many vaccines are supposed to arrive in Israel, at what pace and what the timeline for their distribution is, saying that they cannot make decisions on other matters without that info.

A published agenda for the meeting does not list vaccines as a topic of discussion. Instead they will look at mall openings and “other steps to contain the pandemic.”

Earlier in the day, Blue and White minister Izhar Shay told Army Radio it was “not okay” that Netanyahu had not convened the coronavirus cabinet for 10 days.

Gaza authorities say they are all out of virus tests

Hamas health authorities have ceased testing for coronavirus in Gaza due to a lack of available materials, the Hamas-run Health Ministry says in a laconic statement.

“We call on all the relevant bodies to intervene urgently so as to provide support for emergency needs of the central laboratory,” the Health Ministry says, referring to the main health body that processes coronavirus tests.

Hamas security officers stand guard on the main road of the Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, October 30, 2020. (Adel Hana/AP)

Hamas officials have warned that testing supplies in the coastal enclave could run out since its coronavirus outbreak began in earnest in mid-August. Even as cases have risen over the past few weeks, the number of coronavirus tests conducted has slowly dropped to 2,000 per day.

The Gaza Strip has 10,493 active coronavirus infections, the vast majority of which were identified over the past three weeks. Hamas authorities have ordered a nightly curfew in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

A spokesperson for the Hamas-run health ministry does not immediately respond to a request for comment.

— Aaron Boxerman

Coronavirus cabinet opens with call to shut malls — reports

A meeting of the coronavirus cabinet has begun, several Hebrew-language outlets report.

According to Channel 12 news and Kan, the Health Ministry will recommend that Israel shut down all nonessential stores.

“There’s a rise in infection, we need to push off mall openings,” national security adviser Meir Ben Shabbat is quoted by Kan saying at the start of the closed-door meeting. No source is given.

Channel 12 reports that the ministry will also attempt to reimpose quarantine restrictions for arrivals from all countries, including those deemed low infection areas. Arrivals from Turkey and Serbia will be asked to isolate part of the time in hotels.


Police minister backs man who killed suspected carjacker

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana is lining up in support of a man who shot a  suspected carjacker to death in Arad over the weekend.

“Aryeh Schiff is a model citizen,” Ohana writes on Facebook, citing a law which forbids prosecution of individuals who act “as necessary” to protect themselves or their property.

Schiff was arrested last week on suspicion of reckless manslaughter, after an autopsy found that the suspected thief, 36, had been shot in the head. A court has ordered him freed to house arrest as the case proceeds, but police have appealed. Despite the court rejecting the appeal earlier in the day, Schiff, 70, is still slated to remain behind bars for the next two days.

Ohana describes the suspected car thief, who has not been named in reports, as a Bedouin man with a criminal history, and says that the state should back those trying to protect themselves, saying self-defending citizens are an alternative to police, who cannot be everywhere at once.

“There are times in life when the truth is simple. When it’s evil versus good, I’m with the good,” he writes.

Coronavirus czar pushes ministers on ‘tightened restraint’ restrictions

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash is telling the coronavirus cabinet that Israel is likely closing in on the edge of what it can handle in terms of testing, warning that if that point is reached “the percentage of positives will jump upward,” according to media reports.

Ash also urges ministers to make a decision as soon as possible on imposing restrictions under a scheme described as “tightened restraint,” but also presents an alternative closure of the type Israel experienced over Rosh Hashanah, Army Radio reports.

The Rosh Hashanah lockdown, which was seen as a failure and tightened significantly days later, was intended to limit movement to within one kilometer of home, but came with a long list of exceptions — from work and shopping for essentials to exercise and aiding the elderly. Schools and some shops were shut, and large gatherings were banned.

The “tightened restraint” scheme, which was meant to follow the failed Rosh Hashanah lockdown, would have lifted some restrictions on movement, but kept in-person, public-facing businesses shut down.


Netanyahu to Gantz: You don’t need to know about the vaccine

After Blue and White chief Defense Minister Benny Gantz demands, in the coronavirus cabinet meeting, some basic facts on Israel’s plans for receiving, storing and distributing the vaccines for the coronavirus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells him it’s none of his business, in not so many words.

“There’s a professional panel dealing with the vaccines; we need to distance any policy actors away from it,” he’s quoted saying in leaks emanating from the meeting.

Earlier in the day, the IDF, which is under Gantz’s auspices, offered to help out with distributing the vaccine, citing the military’s logistical know-how.

Netanyahu and Likud Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have made several celebratory pronouncements regarding Israel’s procurement of vaccines, taking credit for making sure Israel is high on global recipient lists.

Blue and White politicians, meanwhile, have complained that they don’t even know how many doses Israel is getting or when they will get here, demanding Netanyahu and co. cough up the details.

PM’s office releases official transcript of Netanyahu comments on vaccine

The Prime Minister’s Office has published a statement with what it says are Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments on the vaccine at the coronavirus cabinet meeting.

“On the issue of the vaccinations committee, I would like to make it clear: There is a professional committee that was established and is dealing with the issue of vaccines including the manner in which they will be allocated. The political elements must be kept away from it, as is done around the world. We have checked this in other countries and this is what they do there. This is a completely professional committee,” he said, according to the statement.

IDF opens criminal probe into deadly shooting of Palestinian boy

The Military Police have opened a criminal investigation into the death of a Palestinian teenager who was reportedly shot dead by Israeli troops during a riot on Friday.

According to Palestinian reports, Ali Abu Aliya, 13, was shot in the stomach and died of his wounds on Friday afternoon during a violent protest in Kafr Malik in the central West Bank against the establishment of a new settlement nearby.

“The claim that there a Palestinian was killed and others injured is known to the IDF, and in light of the incident, the Military Police’s Investigatory Unit has opened an investigation. Upon completion of it, the findings will be presented to the Military Advocate General for consideration,” the IDF says.

The military says troops used .22-caliber Ruger rounds to break up the riot in Kafr Malik on Friday. These bullets, smaller than normal ones, are often used as riot dispersal weapons as they are generally considered less lethal, though they can and have killed people, especially if used incorrectly.

The mother and sister of Palestinian teenager Ali Abu Alia mourn during his funeral in the village of Mughayir near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on December 5, 2020. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The Kan broadcaster on Saturday reported that the military was investigating the possibility that the bullet that struck 13-year-old Abu Aliya had in fact been aimed at a different rioter, but missed its mark.

According to the IDF, during the protest in Kafr Malik, rioters threw stones at IDF troops and border guards and rolled boulders and burning tires into a nearby roadway “threatening the lives of travelers.”

— Judah Ari Gross

Of course our navy is professional, Iran says after rare US praise

Iran has responded to comments from the head of the US Navy’s fifth fleet about an “uneasy deterrence” being reached between the two militaries in the Persian Gulf.

Vice Adm. Sam Paparo told the Manama Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that “we have achieved an uneasy deterrence. That uneasy deterrence is exacerbated by world events and by events along the way. But I have found Iranian activity at sea to be cautious and circumspect and respectful, to not risk unnecessary miscalculation or escalation at sea.”

A US Marine observes Iranian fast attack craft from the USS John P. Murtha during a Strait of Hormuz transit, July 18, 2019. (US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert)

Asked about Paparo’s comments, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, says all of Iran’s naval forces “have always conducted themselves in the utmost professional manner while patrolling in our territorial waters and the greater Persian Gulf.”

“Any suggestion to the otherwise is categorically false,” Miryousefi told The Associated Press. “The question that should be raised is, what is the US Navy doing 7,000 miles from its territorial waters?”

— AP

Health ministry official says vaccinations will only make headway in March

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s acting head of public health, is telling the coranavirus cabinet that while vaccinations will start to be given out in the next few weeks, it will be months that we start to see any effects from them.

“The arrival of the doses and vaccination on a significant scale will only occur in March. This is assuming they are effective and the public responds,” she says, according to leaks from the meeting.

She also says that Israel should not rely on the vaccine alone for its pandemic exit strategy.

Inoculation will likely last long, get immediate okay, US vaccine boss says

The head of the US vaccine development effort says he believes the COVID-19 vaccine could have long-lasting effect once distributed.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui tells CNN’s “State of the Union” that only time will tell for certain, but that, in his opinion, the vaccine’s effectiveness could last for “many, many years,” with older people and others who are more vulnerable requiring a booster every three to five years.

He says that one of the hallmarks of immune systems is memory, so the body’s response to the coronavirus will be much faster once vaccinated.

He says that once 70 to 80% of the population is vaccinated, “the virus will go down.”

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, November 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Slaoui also tells CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he is confident that the Food and Drug Administration will approve the coronavirus vaccine from the pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, this week.

FDA officials will meet to review the Pfizer vaccine on Thursday, and it could be authorized almost immediately.

“Based on the data I know, I expect the FDA to make a positive decision, but of course, it’s their decision,” he says.

But White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx warns Americans not to let their guard down, even so.

Birx, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” notes that more than 100 million Americans suffered preexisting heath conditions that put them at high risk if they contract the virus. The vast majority of those will not have access to the vaccine for months.

“I want to be very frank with the American people,” Birx says. “The vaccine’s critical, but it’s not going to save us from this current surge. Only we can save us from this current surge, and we know precisely what to do.”

— AP

WHO says virus tests shipped to Gaza

The World Health Organization’s envoy to the Palestinians, Gerald Rockenschaub, tells The Times of Israel that a shipment of coronavirus tests arrived in the Gaza Strip today.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry announced earlier in a laconic statement that they had ceased testing for coronavirus in Gaza due to a lack of available materials.

“A shipment arrived today… that will fix the most burning gap, and we expect another shipment to arrive in the next two days. I expect this is a temporary shortage,” Rockenschaub says.

An unnamed source from an unnamed international organization tells the Ynet news site that the announcement by Hamas may have been an attempt to put pressure on outside actors to bring in more tests.

— Aaron Boxerman

Coronavirus cabinet meeting ends with decision not to decide

The coronavirus cabinet meeting has broken up and will reconvene on Monday, according to various Hebrew-media reports.

No decisions have been made on malls beyond extending the pilot by 48 hours.

There is also no decision on imposing stricter restrictions.

Ministry says preliminary virus test positivity rate over 4% for Sunday

The Health Ministry announces that there have been 870 new coronavirus cases so far on Sunday, as of 5:50 p.m., with 4.1 percent of all tests thus far coming back positive.

The preliminary figures eclipse even those seen on Saturday, when 3.9% came back positive, though weekend testing numbers are often lower and are thus sometimes skewed.

The death toll has risen to 2,915.

The number of seriously ill patients is 329, of whom 85 are on ventilators.

Netanyahu: I won’t hesitate to impose restrictions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he “will not hesitate to put more restrictions in place.”

He says the earlier Israel puts them in place, the faster they will have an effect, and allow the country to emerge from the closures.

The comments come after the health officials present the coronavirus cabinet with recommendations to shut down stores and other businesses where the public may be present, and to halt schooling in some high infection areas.

Prosecutor nominee apologizes for sexual remarks to subordinates

State prosecutor nominee Amit Aisman has issued an apology amid a controversy over past inappropriate and sexually explicit remarks to female subordinates, in his first comments on the scandal.

Haifa District Prosecutor Amit Aisman. (Justice Ministry)

“The two things I said were not appropriate and not correct; there is no place for them in conversation, certainly not between a manager and workers in any workplace, especially not in the Justice Ministry,” he says in a column published by Haaretz.

He claims that the two incidents reported on are the only two times he has run into such trouble.

“I express deep regret over what I said, and apologize publicly to anyone I hurt with my comments,” he writes.

Gantz meets with treasury chief for high-stakes budget talks

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has begun a meeting with Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to solve a budget impasse that may lead to early elections.

Gantz has threatened to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections, which will occur in any case if the sides do not pass a 2020 budget by December 23 at midnight.

He has demanded a two-year budget covering 2020 and 2021, as agreed to in coalition talks, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud allies, including Katz, say a 2020 budget is as far as they can look ahead, given the pandemic.

According to Kan news, Gantz is open to compromise in order to avoid early elections, which would be Israel’s fourth in under two years.

Likud lawmakers boycott judge appointments meeting, demand moratorium

Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Likud MK Osnat Mark are demanding that Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn shut down a meeting of the Judicial Appointments Committee that they are boycotting

The two said earlier that they would not attend the bipartisan committee to protest the nomination of two judges they consider to be “anti-Zionist.”

“We are demanding that the process of nominating judges made in violation of the Basic Law: Justice be frozen,” Mark says in a tweet, which includes the letter.

The letter claims that a meeting boycotted by “representatives of the sovereign, of the legislators,” does not have the mandate to make nominations.

According to reports MK Zvi Hauser, who is aligned with Blue and White, is also boycotting the meeting.

Iran says satellite-controlled gun with AI took out scientist

A satellite-controlled machine gun with “artificial intelligence” was used in last week’s assassination of a top nuclear scientist in Iran, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards tells local media.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was driving on a highway outside Iran’s capital Tehran with a security detail of 11 Guards on November 27, when the machine gun “zoomed in” on his face and fired 13 rounds, says rear-admiral Ali Fadavi.

The machine gun was mounted on a Nissan pickup and “focused only on martyr Fakhrizadeh’s face in a way that his wife, despite being only 25 centimeters (10 inches) away, was not shot,” Mehr news agency quotes him as saying.

It was being “controlled online” via a satellite and used an “advanced camera and artificial intelligence” to mark the target, he adds.

Fadavi says that Fakhrizadeh’s head of security took four bullets “as he threw himself” on the scientist and that there were “no terrorists at the scene.”


Top IRGC general who sent troops to Syria dies of COVID-19

An Iranian general reportedly instrumental in sending troops to Syria has died of COVID-19, according to Tehran.

Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Brigadier-General Abdul Rasool Ostovar Mahmudabadi died Sunday after returning from Iraq, according to Tasnim news, quoting top Iranian General Hossein Salami.

Salami describes him as close with assassinated Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Reports say he helped establish and expand Iran’s presence in Syria, a major target of Israel.


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