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

‘An earthquake’: Netanyahu reacts to reports of phone hackings in his cases

Benjamin Netanyahu tweets in response to the reports of phone hackings tied to his case.

“An earthquake: This evening it was revealed that police illegally hacked phones in order to bring down a strong right-wing prime minister.”

Police complaint filed against soccer coach Avram Grant over alleged sexual offenses

A police complaint was filed today against soccer coach Avram Grant relating to alleged sexual offenses, according to multiple reports in Hebrew media.

The complaint is said to refer to events that occurred a decade ago.

The former manager of the Chelsea soccer club and one of the most powerful men in Israeli sport will be investigated by FIFA after being accused of sexually harassing multiple women in an investigative report.

“Exposure,” a program on Channel 12, broadcast a series of interviews on Sunday with women saying that Grant had made unwanted advances while offering to help promote their careers. The women’s voices were altered and their faces silhouetted to protect their identities.

Report: Police hacked phone of key individual in Netanyahu cases without approval

Illustrative: In this February 17, 2016 photo an iPhone lock-screen is seen. (AP /Carolyn Kaster, File)
Illustrative: In this February 17, 2016 photo an iPhone lock-screen is seen. (AP /Carolyn Kaster, File)

Police hacked into the phone of a key individual involved in the criminal cases against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pulled out a large amount of data, Channel 13 reports.

According to Channel 12, the person may have been Shlomo Filber, a former director-general of the Communications Ministry and longtime confidant of Netanyahu who is a state’s witness in Case 4000. That network airs patchy voice recordings in which police investigators seem to be discussing hacking a person’s phone, just before conducting an interview with Filber.

The reports come as police reel from accusations that they have repeatedly used hacking software from NSO Group and others to break into citizens’ phones illegally. The report does not mention whether NSO’s Pegasus program was allegedly used in this case.

Channel 13 says the revelation was made as part of an ongoing Justice Ministry inquiry into the NSO affair.

The data retrieved included photos, texts, phone numbers and more, and was taken without a court order, the report alleges.

Then-Communications Ministry director general Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The network says police have told justice officials that the matter is being looked into, but that the material remained in the tech unit and was not handed over to investigators in the case or to prosecutors.

Channel 13 notes that the discovery could cause serious delays in Netanyahu’s trial, as the opposition leader’s lawyers may demand to review the new revelations and take action over them.

In an official response to the report, police say only that the matter of phone hacking is currently being investigated by the force and the Justice Ministry. They refuse to comment on the specific claim.

High Court freezes plan to bring Ethiopians to Israel as it reviews petition

The High Court of Justice has ordered a freeze on plans to bring thousands of Ethiopian Falash Mura to Israel as it reviews a petition against the move.

The petition by an NGO, the Israeli Immigration Policy Center, asserts that members of the community are not Jews and thus do not deserve immigration rights.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, a member of the Ethiopian community herself, laments the decision, and says members of the Falash Mura are experiencing growing danger “with every day that passes.”

The Falash Mura are Ethiopian Jews whose ancestors converted to Christianity, often under duress, generations ago. Some 30,000 of them have immigrated to Israel since 1997, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Because the Interior Ministry does not consider the Falash Mura to be Jewish, they cannot immigrate under the Law of Return, and therefore must get special permission from the government to move to Israel.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz says Israel has several times offered aid to Lebanese military

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, February 2, 2022. (Screenshot)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, February 2, 2022. (Screenshot)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz says Israel recently offered “aid” to the Lebanese military on several occasions amid the economic chaos in the country.

Speaking at the annual summit of the Institute for National Security Studies in a prerecorded speech, Gantz does not specify what aid was offered, but insinuates it was basic supplies that the Lebanese military is experiencing shortages of.

“Lebanon has become an island of instability… the citizens of Lebanon are not our enemies,” he says.

“And so this year I offered aid to Lebanon four times including in the past week, through the head of [UN peacekeepers in Lebanon] UNIFIL. We want to help the Lebanese army — which suffers from shortages of basic supplies, and has lost over 5,000 soldiers that left it recently — in the face of Hezbollah’s growing strength, with the direct support of Iran.”

Gantz further says that Israel will not allow Hezbollah to grow stronger “under the cover of the chaos” there, and that the Lebanese state will be held responsible for any threat to Israelis.

On Syria, Gantz says Israel “views positively the renewed ties between Syria and Jordan and other moderate nations in the region.”

He adds that “it is top interest of the Syrian people and Syrian regime to stabilize and get Iranian forces out of their territory, annd to enable the country to rebuild.”

CNN chief Jeff Zucker resigns over relationship with colleague

CNN president Jeff Zucker announces his resignation for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague at the US cable television network.

“I certainly wish my tenure here had ended differently,” Zucker says in a message to the network’s employees. “But it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute.”

Zucker, 56, says his resignation is effective immediately.

As head of the cable network since 2013, Zucker was one of the most powerful media executives in the United States.

In this Dec. 17, 2017, file photo, CNN president Jeff Zucker attends the 11th annual CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Qatari FM rules out normalization with Israel

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani rules out normalization with Israel in an interview with Axios.

Al Thani says there had been some ties in the past “when there were prospects for peace” but that it had since “lost hope.”

He laments “the absence of a real commitment to a two-state solution.”

Qatar has had some ties with Jerusalem over aid to the Gaza Strip, and has transferred millions of dollars to the impoverished territory with Israel’s approval.

Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani looks on during a news conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken following a signing ceremony at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

Germany blocks German-language Russian channel

The German broadcasting regulator says it has banned the transmission of the German-language channel of Russian state broadcaster RT, amid rising tensions between Moscow and the West.

The transmission of the channel “RT DE” was “prohibited because it does not have the necessary broadcasting license,” the regulator’s authorization and oversight commission says.

“This is complete nonsense,” RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan says on Twitter, adding that the channel “will not stop broadcasting.”

RT DE was blocked from Europe’s satellite network on December 22 at the request of German authorities, less than a week after going on air, but was still available over the internet and via a mobile app.

In its response to the suspension, RT DE says it is broadcast from Moscow and has a Serbian broadcasting license, which it says gives it the right to broadcast in Germany under European law.

“We cannot understand why a supposedly informed and independent regulator should act on what appears to be a purely political basis, based on a false version of reality that serves its own purpose,” it says.

But the German regulator says the channel is based in Berlin and does not have a “legitimate permit under European law.”

Exiled Iranian opposition says Tehran has created mercenary naval unit for attacks

Iran has created a new naval militia made up of mercenaries from around the region to attack enemies in its neighborhood and particularly off Yemen, the exiled opposition alleges.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) says the unit had been created as part of the Quds Force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards responsible for extra-territorial operations.

“The Quds Force has been recruiting mercenaries for newly created, armed and trained terrorist units to attack ships and maritime targets in the region,” it says in a report based on information received from Iran.

In an April 2, 2021 photo released by the US Navy, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessel cuts in front of the US Coast Guard ship USCGC Monomoy in the Persian Gulf. (US Navy via AP)

The NCRI, which is outlawed in Iran and is the political wing of the People’s Mujahedin, says the mercenaries are being hired from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Africa.

The fighters are brought to Iran for training and then sent back to their home countries to conduct the operations, it says.

“The strategy affords the politically weakened and vulnerable Iranian regime a veneer of plausible deniability for its proxy war in the region, as it seeks to augment the export of terrorism on which it depends,” the group adds.

The aim is to “disrupt maritime navigation of commercial ships, to attack ports, conduct ship hijackings and plant mines.”

It is not immediately possible to verify the claims.

Major importer delays price hikes after public criticism

Food importer Diplomat joins Osem in delaying price hikes of various products until at least after the Passover holiday in April, amid an intense public backlash.

The company says the planned increase in prices came only due to rising operating costs. It says the delay will cause it economic damage.

“The company is not a manufacturer, but an importer and distributor of various food items and the products,” Diplomat says in a statement. “When international manufacturers raise prices, Diplomat is forced to raise prices.”

Among the products imported by the company are Starkist, Pringles, Heinz, Milka, Gillette, Illy, Pampers, Mazola, Kikkoman, Oreo, Oral B and many more.

Environmental Protection Ministry rules out oil spill off Israel’s coast

The Environmental Protection Ministry says it has ruled out an oil spill off Israel’s coast, after several hours of intense checks.

Satellite imagery showing a dark blot some kilometers from the Mediterranean shoreline had sparked concerns, but thorough checks have shown no spill.

Germany rejects Amnesty’s description of Israel as an apartheid state

Germany says it rejects the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel, a day after Amnesty UK accused the Jewish state in a report of the practice.

“We reject expressions like apartheid or a one-sided focusing of criticism on Israel. That is not helpful to solving the conflict in the Middle East,” Reuters quotes Foreign Ministry spokesperson Christopher Burger as telling a news conference.

US to deploy troops to support NATO forces in eastern Europe amid Ukraine standoff

The United States plans to deploy troops to fortify NATO forces in Eastern Europe amid fears that Russia could invade Ukraine, a senior official of President Joe Biden’s administration says.

According to US media reports, around 2,000 troops will be sent from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Poland and Germany, while another 1,000 already in Germany will be moved to Romania.

“The Department of Defense will reposition certain Europe-based units further east, forward-deploy additional US-based units to Europe, and maintain the heightened state of readiness of response forces” to meet commitments to NATO, the administration official says.

“These forces are not going to fight in Ukraine. They are not permanent moves. They respond to current conditions,” the official says, referring to Russia’s placement of more than 100,000 troops along with heavy offensive weapons along Ukraine’s border.

Ukrainian soldier in a trench on the frontline with the Russia-backed separatists near Verkhnetoretskoye village, in the Donetsk region on February 1, 2022. (Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP)

Taliban reopen universities for Afghan women in 2 provinces

The Taliban say they have reopened public universities for women students in two of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, a move marking a major concession to international demands by the country’s new rulers.

Since they swept into power in mid-August, the international community has watched to see whether the Taliban will impose the same harsh measures as during their 1990s rule of Afghanistan, including banning girls from education and women from the workplace and public life.

The Taliban have imposed several restrictions, many of them on women, since their takeover — women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and teaching sector, and girls have not been able to go to school after grade six. The Taliban demand women wear headscarves but have stopped short of imposing the burqa, the head-to-toe covering that was compulsory under their previous rule.

The Taliban-run culture and information ministry says that public universities in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kandahar are now open for women in what it describes as a staggered process expected to see all students — men and women — eventually return to university.

Cyprus police to review UK woman’s gang rape case

Cyprus police say they will review whether mistakes were made after a young British woman was cleared of falsely claiming she was gang-raped by 12 Israeli tourists in 2019.

On Monday, the Cyprus Supreme Court quashed the conviction against the woman, who had been found guilty of public mischief after her rape accusation. The court said the young woman was put through a trial process that was “manifestly unfair.”

Michael Polak, the lawyer who coordinated the appeal against the woman’s conviction, has called for the case to be reopened and demanded an inquiry into what went wrong.

Cypriot police spokesperson Christos Andreou tells state broadcaster CyBC that the authorities are studying the court decision.

He says the police are “not infallible,” but they did follow procedures outlined by the courts. Andreou says the police will examine whether “mistakes or omissions” had been made during the case investigation.

Labor and Meretz warn okaying illegal outpost Evyatar will endanger coalition

The coalition’s Labor and Meretz parties have reacted angrily to the apparent progress on plans to retroactively authorize the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar.

Labor calls such a move “destructive.”

“Our government must deal with steeply rising prices and urgent economic aid to citizens. Instead, a small number of government members are choosing to advance illegal outposts that hurt Israel and Israeli security,” the party says, singling out Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

“Those who want a stable and functioning coalition should act according to the agreements.”

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 13, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Meretz party says it will oppose “any attempt to establish new settlements,” saying this issue is “at the root of the agreement to form the government.”

Meanwhile, the opposition’s Joint List says: “This government is doing things the Netanyahu government didn’t dare do. Authorization for Evyatar spits in the face of all who want peace and democracy.”

Child killed in Jerusalem home blaze identified as Eliyahu Shor, 12

A child killed in a fire in a Jerusalem apartment overnight has been identified as Eliyahu Shor, 12.

Shor died in the blaze that erupted on the top floor of a four-story building in the Musrara neighborhood. Police are investigating the cause, which may have been a faulty heater.

Shor’s father was lightly hurt in the fire from smoke inhalation.

Gantz arrives in Bahrain to sign security agreements, in first official visit

Defense Minister Benny Gantz lands in the Bahraini capital Manama, in his first official visit to the island kingdom, to sign security agreements with his Bahraini counterpart as the two nations look to further solidify their ties.

For security reasons, Gantz’s landmark trip was kept secret until he landed in Manama, and details of his schedule in the island kingdom are similarly not immediately permitted for publication.

Gantz is scheduled to spend just over 24 hours in the Persian Gulf country, meeting with top Bahraini officials, including King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and Minister of Defense Affairs Abdullah Bin Hassan Al Noaimi, before returning to Israel late Thursday night.

An Israeli plane carrying Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen on the tarmac after landing in Manama, Bahrain, February 2, 2022 (Judah Ari Gross)

FBI admits buying NSO’s Pegasus hacking tool, says it never used it

The FBI has said it purchased NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus phone hacking software, but asserts it never made use of it.

The US internal security agency tells The Guardian it bought the Israeli-made tool to “stay abreast of emerging technologies and tradecraft” and for “product testing and evaluation only,” including concerns that the software would fall into “the wrong hands.”

“There was no operational use in support of any investigation,” it says.

In Israel, the police are under fire for allegedly using the tool to spy on citizens without proper oversight by courts. An investigation is ongoing.

Leaked text suggests possible US-Russia missile arrangement

The United States could be willing to enter into an agreement with Russia to ease tensions over missile deployments in Europe if Moscow steps back from the brink in Ukraine, according to a leaked document published in a Spanish newspaper.

The daily El Pais publishes two documents purported to be written replies from the United States and NATO last week to Russia’s proposals for a new security arrangement in Europe. US officials could not be immediately contacted to confirm that one document is authentic.

In reference to the second document, NATO says that it never comments on “alleged leaks.” But the text closely reflects statements made to the media last by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he laid out the 30-nation military organization’s position on Russia’s demands.

Jewish Federations eye security improvements for communities

The Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA, is aiming to give Jewish communities across the country training and know-how to help them respond to security threats. The organization has embarked on an initiative, called LiveSecure, to bolster security in Jewish communities by launching new security programs or enhancing ones they already have.

The push comes amid heightened fears about the vulnerability of Jewish institutions and antisemitic incidents. The Anti-Defamation League counted 2,024 cases of harassment, vandalism and assault in the US in 2020, the third highest on record since the Jewish civil rights group began tracking incidents in 1979.

The ultimate goal of JFNA’s initiative is to raise $126 million across the federations network over three years, and ensure all 146 communities where Jewish federations are currently located have security hubs, up from 45 today. JFNA itself is aiming to raise $54 million of that, a majority of which is earmarked for local Jewish federations that also raise their own funds.

Flower pots, each with a name of one of the 11 worshippers killed on October 27, 2018, when a gunman opened fire as worship services began at the Tree of Life Synagogue, line the fence surrounding the synagogue on October 26, 2019, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Kyiv mayor vows to ‘defend’ city if Russia invades

Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko, a former world heavyweight champion boxer, pledged Wednesday to “defend” the city if warnings of a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces come true.

“We have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. We hope it does not happen,” Klitschko told journalists Wednesday.

“But if aggressors come to our country we don’t have any choice, we have to defend our city, our country, our future.”

Klitschko along with his brother, fellow champion boxer Wladimir, visited a recruitment center in central Kyiv for volunteers willing to take up arms if the city is attacked.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko speaks during visit to a volunteers recruitment center in Kiev on February 2, 2022 (Genya SAVILOV / AFP)

Wladimir Klitschko signed up for the territorial defense, insisting he wanted to “protect” his family, friends and relatives. “There are two ways — you can run or you can face the challenge. So my choice was to face the challenge.”

Environment Ministry still examining suspected oil spill, no pollutants found

At a press briefing from a hastily established situation room in Haifa, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg gives an update on the search for a suspected oil spill off the coast of the country.

Zandberg says no evidence of pollution has yet been found but officials are keeping up their guard until that is confirmed. She tells journalists that officials are “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.”

Officials at the briefing say the ministry has ruled out the suspected spill as having come from Israel’s natural gas offshore rigs.

Sea and air searches continue to follow up on satellite images and initial evidence from air patrols overnight that indicated there could be patches of oil about 20-40 kilometers off the coast of the central region of the country.

Officials say there is only a narrow window to take advantage of calm seas before a forecast storm arrives tomorrow afternoon.

Top health official denies Israel has seen Omicron reinfection with new BA.2 strain

A top health official contradicts reports that several people in Israel have been reinfected with an Omicron subvariant after recovering from the original strain.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, tells the Knesset officials have so far diagnosed 350 cases of BA.2, which is suspected to be even more infectious than the original BA.1 Omicron strain.

However, she says that “there has been no case of reinfection in those recovering from Omicron.” She notes that for someone just coming out of Omicron to get reinfected, the new version of the virus “would need to be different enough that the antibodies their bodies have made and that helped them recover would not protect them. Right now we do not see that happening.”

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem about new coronavirus restrictions, December 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yesterday both Channel 12 and Kan news reported that Israel has detected a few cases in which people who recovered from BA.1 were then reinfected with BA.2.

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