ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Feb 7: Saudis still open to post-war normalization but need path to 2-states — Blinken

Secretary: Hamas terms create space for deal * PM: Absolute victory within reach; no surrender to ‘delusional’ Hamas demands * Ex-hostage: ‘Saving hostages would be absolute victory’

  • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
    US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2023. (Screenshot)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2023. (Screenshot)
  • Sahar Calderon (left) speaks, with Aviva Seigel alongside her, during a press conference with four other women released in November from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)
    Sahar Calderon (left) speaks, with Aviva Seigel alongside her, during a press conference with four other women released in November from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)
  • Israeli President Isaac Herzog meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
    Israeli President Isaac Herzog meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
  • A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024, shows a holding cell inside a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
    A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024, shows a holding cell inside a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
  • A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 show a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
    A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024 show a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
  • Mourning families place photos of their loved ones murdered in Supernova massacre alongside flower bouquets outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)
    Mourning families place photos of their loved ones murdered in Supernova massacre alongside flower bouquets outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 7, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

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

Blinken: Saudis still open to normalization but only once Gaza calm, pathway to 2-states open

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman repeated his “desire and determination to pursue normalization” with Israel during a meeting earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says.

According to Blinken, the crown prince said that in order for this to happen, however, there must be calm in Gaza and “a clear and credible pathway to a Palestinian state.”

He also says that there are countries in the region that are “prepared to do things with and for Israel that they were never prepared to do in the past, including steps that would further address any security concerns it might have.”

He notes that he had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia on October 10 to pursue normalization efforts, before the events of October 7 intervened.

The normalization process would also isolate Hamas and Iran, says Blinken. But it will require hard decisions. “The alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and destruction and despair.”

Finally, he is asked whether the US sees any role for Hamas in governing post-war Gaza. “The short answer,” says Blinken, “is no.”

Blinken: UNRWA must be thoroughly investigated over Oct. 7 but its work must be preserved

Responding to a question about a potential IDF operation in Rafah, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says any military operation that Israel undertakes “needs to put civilians first and foremost in mind.”

On UNRWA, he says “it is imperative” that there be a thorough investigation of some of its staffers’ alleged participation in the October 7 onslaught, and that there be clear measures put in place so that personnel can never again be involved in terrorism.

The work UNRWA performs “has to be preserved, because so many lives depend on it… The functions have to be preserved.”

Palestinian Authority must ‘reform and revitalize itself’ as part of path to statehood, Blinken says

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that to reach a path to statehood, the Palestinian Authority must take steps “to reform and revitalize itself.”

He says he told PA President Mahmoud Abbas today that governance must be improved, as must accountability to the Palestinian people.

It says the PA has committed to make these and other reforms.

Many actors in the region are lining up to move down the path of reconciliation, he says.

But turning to Iran, he says it and its proxies are trying to sabotage progress and escalate violence.

Blinken says the US “will continue to defend our people, and continue to defend our interests” to prevent escalation.

Blinken says he also told Netanyahu and other senior officials about his “profound concerns over actions and rhetoric, “including from government ministers, that inflame tensions, that undercut international support and place greater strains on Israel’s security.”

Blinken: Middle East peace means a ‘fully integrated’ Israel and a clear path to a Palestinian state

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says that the diplomatic path for peace in the region means “an Israel that’s fully integrated into the region, with normal relations with key countries including Saudi Arabia…alongside a concrete, time-bound and irreversible path to a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace and security with Israel, with the necessary security assurances.”

Blinken: Israelis were ‘dehumanized’ on Oct. 7, but that cannot be a license to dehumanize others

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)

“We urge Israel to do more to help civilians, knowing full well that it faces an enemy that would never meet those standards,” says US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a Tel Aviv press conference, adding that Hamas embeds itself among civilians and fires rockets from hospitals, mosques and schools.

He calls Hamas “an enemy whose leaders surround themselves with hostages,” and says it is “an enemy that has declared publicly its goal to kill as many innocent civilians as it can, simply because they’re Jews, and to wipe Israel off the map.”

“That’s why we’ve made clear that Israel is fully justified in confronting Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” Blinken says. “That’s why the United States has done more than any other country to support Israel’s right to ensure that October 7 never happens again.”

Nonetheless, he now uses caustic language to upbraid Israel on its conduct of the war in Gaza.

“Israelis were dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7,” he says. “The hostages have been dehumanized every day since. But that cannot be a license to dehumanize others.”

“The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7,” he maintains.

Adds Blinken: “The families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families. They’re mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who want to earn a decent living, send their kids to school, have a normal life. That’s who they are. That’s what they want. And we cannot, we must not, lose sight of that. We cannot, we must not, lose sight of our common humanity.”

Blinken says daily toll in Gaza remains too high, US pushing Israel to maximize civilian protection

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / POOL / AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he and Israel’s war leadership spoke at length about the IDF campaign to defeat Hamas and ensuring October 7 never happens again. Discussion also focused on the Lebanon front.

He stresses the imperative for “maximizing humanitarian protection” and relieving the suffering of Gazans. “Most have lost someone that they love,” he says, “and day after day, more people are killed.”

Blinken says that the US has and continues to “press Israel in concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection” and to get more assistance to those who need it.

He says that “Israel has taken important steps” on starting the flow of aid, then doubling it during the first ceasefire, opening civilian corridors and opening the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

“As a result, more assistance than ever” is flowing into more places in Gaza “than any time since October 7.”

He cites the US role in providing flour.

He says a UN team began its mission to northern Gaza to assess conditions there, including for displaced Palestinians to move back home to the north.

“The daily toll that [Israel’s] military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high,” Blinken says.

He says he highlighted key steps that Israel should take to ensure that more aid reaches more people. He calls on Israel to open the destroyed Erez Crossing in northern Gaza, to expedite the flow of aid from Jordan, to strengthen deconfliction and to improve coordination with aid agencies.

“Israel must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone,” he says, alluding to civilian protests by Israelis at Kerem Shalom.

Blinken in Tel Aviv: Space for agreement to be reached in Hamas response to hostage deal

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he is in Israel “first and foremost to consult directly with our partners on the joint efforts to bring all of the remaining hostages home.”

Turning to the Hamas counterproposal on a deal and Israel’s response, Blinken says that “while there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached. And we will work at that relentlessly until we get there.”

WATCH: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds press conference in Tel Aviv

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a press conference in Tel Aviv after meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog earlier today.

The press conference can be watched below:

Hamas official Osama Hamdan says Netanyahu’s goal is the ‘genocide’ of Palestinian people

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan speaks during a rally organized by Lebanon's Hezbollah terror group to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan speaks during a rally organized by Lebanon's Hezbollah terror group to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan says that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “insistence on continuing the aggression” in Gaza proves that the goal of the war against Hamas is “genocide against the Palestinian people.”

“We will exert every effort to protect our people, whether through the resistance on the ground or… political efforts to stop the aggression,” the Lebanon-based Hamas official adds.

His comments come after Netanyahu dismissed Hamas’s demand for a ceasefire and an end to the war in the Gaza Strip as part of their conditions for a hostage deal.

Three Kataeb Hezbollah members killed in Baghdad drone strike, militia says

A drone strike hit a car in the Iraqi capital Wednesday night, killing three members of the powerful Kataeb Hezbollah militia including a high-ranking commander, militia officials say.

The strike occurred on a main thoroughfare in the Mashtal neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. A crowd gathered as emergency response teams picked through the wreckage.

Two officials with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq say that one of those killed was Wissam Mohammed “Abu Bakr” al-Saadi, the commander in charge of Kataeb Hezbollah’s operations in Syria. The officials speak on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.

The strike came days after the US military launched an air assault on dozens of sites in Iraq and Syria used by Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in retaliation for a drone strike that killed three US troops in Jordan in late January.

IDF says fighter jets carried out additional strikes on Hezbollah targets in south Lebanon

The IDF says fighter jets carried out further strikes on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon today.

It says observation posts, a building and other infrastructure belonging to Hezbollah in the town of Khiam were struck.

According to the IDF, Hezbollah makes extensive use of Khiam for its activity. It says a sixth of the rockets fired by the terror group at northern Israel amid the war were launched from the town.

Two projectiles were also fired earlier from Lebanon at the Mount Dov area, with the IDF saying they hit open areas. Rockets were also fired at Goren and Margaliot.

The IDF says it is shelling the launch sites with artillery.

 

Blinken said to tell Netanyahu that he will think about the thousands of children killed in Gaza all his life

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with President Isaac Herzog at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with President Isaac Herzog at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting earlier today that for the rest of his life, he will “think about the thousands of children who were killed in Gaza,” Channel 13 reports.

According to the report, Blinken made the comments during a discussion about the civilian victims of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza has said that since the start of the war, more than 27,500 people have been killed inside the enclave, the majority of them civilians. These figures cannot be independently verified, however, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. Israel says the IDF has killed over 10,000 Hamas operatives in Gaza.

Saying that he is “shocked by October 7,” when Hamas terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted over 250, and is “committed to preventing such a thing from happening again,” Blinken reportedly said that, nevertheless, the reality of the matter is that “entire families that are not connected to Hamas were harmed” amid the fighting.

Netanyahu is said to have responded that the blame for civilian casualties lies with Hamas, as it “operates from within the civilian population.”

IDF chief, State Comptroller discuss plans to investigate failures around Oct. 7 massacre

Left: IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023; Right: State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman walk at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 28, 2022. (Flash90)
Left: IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023; Right: State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman walk at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 28, 2022. (Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi met earlier today with State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, amid plans by the latter to investigate the multiple failures that occurred before, during and after the Hamas terror group’s October 7 massacre.

The meeting, at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, “was held in good spirits out of a common desire to act without harming the fighting,” the military and the State Comptroller’s Office say in a joint statement.

The statement says staff from the army and Englman’s office will begin joint discussions over the investigation, after which the two will meet again.

Last month, Halevi penned a letter to Englman asking him to delay the planned probe, claiming it would “divert the attention of the commanders from the fighting, will damage the operational investigation ability, and will not allow drawing necessary lessons to achieve the goals of the war.”

If hostages aren’t returned, it will ‘stain Israel forever,’ released women warn at press conference

Five female hostages released from Hamas captivity in November, 2023, pictured on February 7, 2024: From left, Aviva Siegel, Sahar Calderon, Nili Margalit, Adina Moshe and Sharon Aloni Cunio (Screencapture/Facebook Live)
Five female hostages released from Hamas captivity in November, 2023, pictured on February 7, 2024: From left, Aviva Siegel, Sahar Calderon, Nili Margalit, Adina Moshe and Sharon Aloni Cunio (Screencapture/Facebook Live)

A group of released female hostages — Sahar Calderon, Aviva Siegel, Adina Moshe, Nili Margalit and Sharon Aloni Cunio — make statements at a brief press conference Wednesday night regarding the possible hostage deal prior to further discussions on the matter in Cairo.

Moshe directs her remarks to the prime minister and his family: “I was there but I was released and my friends, the young men and women I educated, are still there. I think some of them didn’t survive because they were moved from place to place,” she cries, as Margalit takes her hand. “I turn to you again, Mr. Netanyahu, it’s all in your hands.”

Moshe says she and her fellow Kibbutz Nir Oz members protected the country’s borders for many years, “We didn’t run away,” adding that she wants her country back, the values of Israel.

Aloni Cunio, who was released from captivity with her twin three-year-old daughters but without her husband, David Cunio, directs her remarks to the six members and observers of the war cabinet and their spouses, mentioning each by name.

“Generations of Israelis were brought up that we always try to save Jewish souls,” says Aloni Cunio. “The price is heavy, and it clenches the stomach and body. But if we don’t, it will stain Israel forever.”

Margalit echoes Aloni Cunio’s words, and adds that “millions of Israelis and Jews are waiting for six people to make this decision,” she says. “If they don’t come home, everyone will know that they are next in line, that we live in a country that doesn’t worry about our safety, that doesn’t protect its citizens.”

Released hostage Siegel, whose husband Keith Siegel is still held captive, thanks Israelis and the Jewish world for their support, and adds that if the hostages are saved, “we’ll save the state of Israel.”

16-year-old Calderon holds hands with Siegel, as tears fill her throat when she speaks about her father, Ofer Calderon, still held hostage.

“Do you know what it’s like to be there even for an hour?” asks Calderon. “I want the warm hug of my father and so many people are waiting for that. You’ve abandoned so many people, please don’t relegate the hostages to a coffin. Don’t let me lose my faith in you a second time.”

IDF says troops kill senior terror operative, 2 other gunmen in the West Bank

The IDF and police say troops killed a senior terror operative and another two gunmen in the West Bank’s Nur Shams refugee camp, close to Tulkarem.

Undercover Border Police officers and IDF reservists of the 8105th Battalion operated in Nur Shams for more than four hours following intelligence information provided by the Shin Bet.

In a joint statement, the IDF and police say the troops encircled the building where the wanted Palestinian, Moatasem Ali, was holed up, and applied a tactic known as “pressure cooker.”

Ali is accused of being a senior terror operative in Nur Shams, and responsible for previous shooting attacks against IDF troops.

The statement says that after using various means, and amid a gun battle, Ali was killed.

Two more gunmen who attempted to flee from the building where the wanted man was holed up were also killed, the IDF and police say.

The troops also recovered weapons from the building, the IDF says.

The statement says no soldiers or officers were hurt in the raid.

Released hostage Sahar Calderon, 16: I am alive and breathing but my soul was murdered in Gaza

Sahar Calderon (left) speaks, with Aviva Seigel alongside her, during a press conference with four other women released in November from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)
Sahar Calderon (left) speaks, with Aviva Seigel alongside her, during a press conference with four other women released in November from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)

Released hostage Sahar Calderon, 16, whose father Ofer Calderon remains in Hamas captivity, breaks down as she talks about her experiences in captivity in Gaza.

“Do you know what it’s like to be there for even a day? Not even a day, one hour is hell,” she says during a press conference with four other women released from captivity during a weeklong truce in late November.

“I was there for 52 days,” she continues through tears. “Why did I, a 16-year-old girl, need to go through all of that? Why did I need to be in that place for 2 months?”

“Correct, I am alive and breathing but my soul was murdered. And everyone who is still there is murdered anew each day,” she adds.

Released hostage Aviva Seigel: Saving the hostages will be ‘absolute victory’

Aviva Siegel (right) speaks during a press conference with four other women released from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)
Aviva Siegel (right) speaks during a press conference with four other women released from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot)

Released hostage Aviva Seigel, who was taken captive from Kibbutz Kfar Aza on October 7, appeals for the return of the 136 hostages still in Gaza during a press conference.

Thanking the public for the support they have shown the hostages and their families, she says that the people of Israel are “one country, one family, [with] one destiny.”

“If we save the hostages we’ll have saved the State of Israel and that will be absolute victory,” she says, echoing the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the same about eradicating Hamas from the Gaza Strip.

Released hostage Adina Moshe: If Netanyahu doesn’t change course, there will be no hostages left to return

Released hostage Adina Moshe (right) appeals for the return of the hostages during a press conference with four other women released from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)
Released hostage Adina Moshe (right) appeals for the return of the hostages during a press conference with four other women released from Hamas captivity, February 7, 2024. (Screenshot/ Channel 12)

Five women released from captivity in Gaza during a weeklong truce in late November hold a press conference to push for a second hostage deal with Hamas to ensure the return of the 136 hostages still held by Hamas, not all of whom are alive.

Adina Moshe, who was taken hostage from Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, addresses the government while fighting back tears.

“I was there, I felt there, I hurt there, but I was released,” she says. “My friends, the youth that I educated, they’re still there. I think that some of them did not survive. I know that they don’t receive their required medications, and I know that they’re no longer in the place that I was with them.”

“Again, I am asking you, Mr. Netanyahu, everything is in your hands, you’re the one who can do it, and I’m extremely scared, that if you continue along this path…there won’t be any more hostages to release,” she adds.

IDF chief says troops making progress in Gaza, only military pressure will bring hostages home

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) meets with the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman in northern Gaza, Feburary 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi (left) meets with the chief of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman in northern Gaza, Feburary 6, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

During a visit to the northern Gaza Strip yesterday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi repeats the assessment that only military pressure on Hamas will bring about the release of the hostages held by the terror group.

“Today we are on day 122, but we are making progress, we are not standing still. When we talked about dismantling Hamas, we didn’t think it would be in a week, we didn’t think it would be in a month, it’s peeling back layers,” Halevi says during an assessment.

He says the IDF’s new raids in northern Gaza result in “more dead terrorists, more dead commanders, more destroyed infrastructure.”

“I hope that this pressure also brings us to achieve one more important goal, returning the hostages,” Halevi says.

“It won’t happen without military pressure, let’s not fool ourselves, that’s why across the entire Strip we are applying pressure with fire, with a [ground] maneuver, with surprise raids, and we will continue to do it in a very, very high-quality way,” he adds.

Abbas pushes for US recognition of Palestinian state in meeting with Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, February 7, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Ramallah. The American top diplomat is on his fifth Mideast diplomacy tour since the start of the war.

In the meeting, Abbas presses for US recognition of a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, and for full UN membership, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa. He stresses that peace and security can only be achieved through a two-state solution.

Abbas expresses his “disappointment” at an entry ban into the US approved last week by the House of Representatives against members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as well as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, saying that the measure would “affect the American role” in shaping the politics of the region. The bill is yet to be approved by the Senate.

The PA leader further calls to increase efforts to halt the “Israeli aggression” and the displacement of the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and in the West Bank, and to put an end to settler attacks against Palestinians, particularly in the Jordan Valley.

Abbas also urges Blinken to increase pressure on Israel to release funds earmarked for Ramallah, which Israel has been holding under the claim that they may be transferred to Hamas.

Biden sends aides to meet with Arab American leaders in Michigan amid frustration over Gaza war

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a visit by US President Joe Biden in Warren, Michigan, February 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators march during a visit by US President Joe Biden in Warren, Michigan, February 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

President Joe Biden is sending several senior aides to Michigan to meet with Arab American and Muslim leaders, according to three people familiar with the matter, as his administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza frustrates members of a key constituency in a 2024 battleground state.

Those making the trip for Thursday’s meeting include Samantha Power, head of the US Agency for International Development, principal deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, and Steven Benjamin, who directs the Office of Public Engagement, a White House official said.

All who discussed the plans are not authorized to do so publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The officials do not offer any details about the community members expected to attend.

Also expected to attend are Tom Perez, who leads the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Mazen Basrawi, the White House liaison to American Muslim communities, and aides Jamie Citron and Dan Koh.

Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, and other campaign aides went to suburban Detroit late last month, but found a number of community leaders unwilling to meet with them.

Other community activists have gone even further as they press their disapproval of the president’s handling of the war and have formed a group called “Abandon Biden,” a movement discouraging voters from supporting the president in November.

PM predicts more peace deals once Hamas defeated; says a Blinken-Halevi meet wouldn’t have been right

Taking questions at his press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicts “the circle of peace will expand” if Hamas is defeated, after Saudi Arabia declared it won’t normalize relations with Israel until the war in Gaza is over and an irreversible path to a Palestinian state is established.

“There’ll be no agreement [on further peace treaties] if Hamas is not defeated,” he says.

Asked by Times of Israel’s Sam Sokol about disagreements in the war cabinet about the “day after” in Gaza,  and the lack of preparation for it, he says there is a wide agreement on the need to destroy Hamas and to ensure demilitarization under the IDF’s oversight. Civil administration by non-terror forces can only come after that happens.

He says he is trying to recruit regional players to help with this future civil governance, but he does not believe this effort will succeed unless and until it is clear that Hamas is defeated. Outside players remain fearful that they “would get a bullet in the head” from Hamas. Thus, it is “not serious” to believe that you can destroy the civil governance by Hamas before you have destroyed its military capabilities.

Netanyahu also confirms he rejected a US request for Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet privately today with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, saying he does not believe that would have been appropriate and that he doesn’t meet military commanders without political leaders present when he visits the United States or elsewhere.

He notes that the security chiefs attended a meeting today under his leadership with Blinken. “I think that’s how we need to act,” he says.

PM denies Hamas reestablishing itself in northern Gaza; says he’s made no commitments on Palestinian prisoner releases

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol / Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Sam Sokol / Times of Israel)

After finishing his prepared remarks, Netanyahu is asked how there will be an absolute victory if Israel is currently withdrawing forces, aid continues to enter Gaza and Hamas is reestablishing itself in northern Gaza.

“This is a process that takes time,” he responds.

Netanyahu denies Hamas is reestablishing itself in northern Gaza, repeating that the military has dismantled the terror group’s brigades and military chain of command there. Now the IDF is engaged in ongoing raids to tackle the remaining splinters. Gradually, the need for such raids will be reduced.

“There is no alternative to the military collapse [of Hamas]. There will not be a civilian collapse [of Hamas rule] without a military one,” he says.

He again dismisses the demands made by Hamas for a hostage deal and, asked whether Israel has promised to free Palestinian security prisoners with blood on their hands, says Israel “has not committed to anything.”

Specifically, Israel has not committed to the kinds of ratios of Palestinian security prisoners to be freed in exchange for hostages, or to the kinds of prisoners who would go free.

“There is supposed to be some kind of negotiation via the intermediaries. But right now, given what I see from the response by Hamas [to the Israel-backed framework for talks on a deal], they’re not there.”

He denies reports of increased humanitarian aid to Gaza. He says Israel’s security establishment assesses that “up to 60 percent of the humanitarian aid is taken by Hamas.” And he says President Biden said in the past that if that were to happen, the aid should be stopped — which Israel has said too.

He says he asked the security establishment to propose in the next few days ways to stop or minimize this from happening.

Asked about the sense that the National Unity Party of Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot is readying to bolt the coalition, he criticizes those who speak about unity but talk and act against it.

Netanyahu: Victory in Gaza ‘within reach’; no surrender to Hamas’s delusional demands

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2023. (Screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference in Jerusalem, February 7, 2023. (Screenshot)

At a press conference in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again promises a “crushing victory” over Hamas.

“We are on the way to complete victory. The victory is within reach,” he says, predicting that the war will be won in a “matter of months” not years or decades.

“I set absolute victory as the goal from the start,” he says, and “we won’t settle for any less than that.”

He reiterates the goals of the war: Destroying Hamas, returning the hostages, and ensuring Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel, and says the IDF is moving “systematically” to achieve them.

Netanyahu calls the military’s accomplishments in the offensive against Hamas “unprecedented,” touting the damage that Israel has inflicted on the Gaza-ruling terror group.

He decries the “experts,” TV commentators and those in the international community who predicted that the ground offensive would fail, warned against sending troops into Gaza City, cautioned against tackling Hamas in and near hospitals, and said the IDF should not dare to enter Hamas’s tunnels.

Israel’s “valiant fighters,” he says, have “proved that everything they told us was impossible was possible… and more.”

20,000 Hamas fighters are dead or injured, he says — more than half the Hamas fighting force, with 18 of 24 battalions no longer functional. And he says the IDF is systematically destroying the underground network where Hamas is hiding.

The premier says that after Khan Younis, “the main Hamas stronghold,” the IDF is readying to fight next in Rafah. He says he has ordered the IDF to operate there, and in the two central Gaza refugee camps — in accordance with international law, and with provisions for noncombatants to safely leave the war zone.

“We will continue until the end,” he says. “There is no other solution besides absolute victory.”

Were Hamas to survive in Gaza, “it will only be a matter of time until the next massacre,” he warns, and the Iran-led axis of terror would strengthen.

Destroying Hamas will send a message to the entire Middle East and enable Israel to widen the circle of peace, he says.

Netanyahu says he told visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken today that Israel is “within touching distance of absolute victory,” and that Hamas’s defeat will be the “victory of the entire free world.

He vows that the return of the hostages remains a top priority, telling the families of the hostages that he never stops thinking about or working for the release of their loved ones.

He argues that “continued military pressure is an essential condition for the freeing of the hostages.”

Relating publicly for the first time to Hamas’s conditions for a new hostage deal, Netanyahu says: “Surrender to Hamas’s delusional demands, that we’ve just heard, not only would not bring about the freedom of the hostages, it would only invite an additional slaughter; it would invite disaster for Israel that no Israeli citizens want.”

“The ‘day after’ is the day after Hamas,” he adds, saying that he told Blinken that after Hamas is destroyed, Israel will “ensure that Gaza is demilitarized forever.”

History has proven that only Israel and its security forces can ensure this. “What this means is that Israel will be and will act in Gaza wherever and whenever it needs to, to ensure that terror does not again raise its head.”

The civil governance of Gaza cannot be carried out by supporters of terror, he adds.

“This also means that we will have to replace UNRWA. I have ordered that this process begin, and updated Secretary Blinken about this today.”

The Middle East is at a fateful turning point, he says, between light and dark. Iran and the forces of darkness will not be allowed to prevail, he says, “and the absolute victory over Hamas in Gaza is a condition for this.”

WATCH: Netanyahu holds press conference on Hamas hostage demands

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding a press conference in Jerusalem on the proposed hostage deal and the demands that Hamas has made.

The press conference can be watched below:

Senior Hamas police officer killed in strike on Rafah, terror group says

Senior Hamas police officer Majdi Abdel-Al was killed in an Israeli airstrike on a car in Rafah earlier today, the Gaza terror group says.

An additional three people were killed in a strike on a house in the southern Gaza city, health officials say.

 

Father of hostage Eitan Mor stresses importance of bringing captives home but not at any cost

Zvika Mor (Courtesy screenshot)
Zvika Mor (Courtesy screenshot)

Zvika Mor, father of hostage Eitan Mor, speaks Wednesday with the Jerusalem Press Club ahead of a visit to Capitol Hill, regarding the importance of bringing home the hostages, but not making a deal with Hamas at any cost.

Mor, one of the members of the Tikva Forum of hostage families, is concerned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will agree to a deal that won’t have Israel’s best interests at heart, he says.

“When you’re going to buy a secondhand car, you want to see the car, to see it work and we don’t even have a list of who is alive,” says Mor.

“It’s been more than 70 days since we’ve heard anything and we’re very worried,” says Mor about his son, Eitan, 23, who had been working as a security guard at the Supernova desert rave on October 7. He was taken captive by Hamas terrorists as he was helping the injured and trying to hide the bodies of victims.

“We care about the future of Israel and war is the main tool to win this war, to eliminate Hamas,” says Mor, a father of eight who has been living in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba for the last 25 years. “We have to make Hamas surrender, we have to keep pushing Hamas until it asks for a deal.”

According to Mor, there are three groups within the families of the hostages: the Hostages and Missing Families Forum which is pushing for a deal; the Tikva Forum which does not want a deal at any cost; and the other families that aren’t heard from. The Tikva Forum, which he says represents about half of the 136 hostage families and “most of the people of Israel,” believes that the issue is not just about the hostages but the future safety of the entire state of Israel.

“We are sending our soldiers to fight in this war although we know that some of them will not come back,” says Mor. “If the hostages were the main issue, we could negotiate with Hamas. We want the government to let the IDF win this war, we want this war to be the end of all wars.”

Haredi minister says no government members will resign after end of war

File: Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf attends a conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
File: Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf attends a conference in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, tells the ultra-Orthodox news outlet Kikar Hashabbat that no government members will resign at the end of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

“I don’t see anybody resigning, who is it bad for? There are 64 [government] members, there are government ministries, everything is working and there is an organized budget,” Goldknopf says.

“What, the day after a war the government has to fall?” he asks. “What does the government have to do with the war?”

The housing minister evades two questions on the matter of responsibility for the October 7 terror onslaught carried out by Hamas in southern Israel, saying the matter will be investigated by a committee “that will finish its work in 2028, maybe 2027.”

IDF announces plans to increase service time for conscripts and reservists

Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man walks outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 2, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man walks outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 2, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

The IDF is planning to increase the amount of time conscripts and reservists serve in the military, as it prepares for a long war in the Gaza Strip and works to bolster its personnel for future challenges.

The planned changes to the security service and reserve service laws, which will need to be approved by lawmakers, include returning male mandatory army service to three years, as it had been until 2015.

Currently, male recruits serve 32 months, while women serve for two years.

Under the planned changes, female soldiers in combat and other special roles will also serve for 36 months.

The IDF also plans to raise the age for retirement from reserve duty.

Currently, soldiers can bow out at 40, officers at 45, and special roles, including positions like drivers, at 49.

Under the IDF’s plans, the age of retirement from reserve duty for soldiers would increase to 45, officers to 50, and special roles to 52.

The amount of time required by reservists to serve per year will also change.

According to plans, soldiers, who are currently required to serve 54 days in reserves within three years, will serve instead 42 days per year; commanders who are not officers, who serve 70 days within three years, will serve 48 days a year; and officers, who serve 84 days within three years, will serve 55 days a year.

The IDF also plans to increase the number of days in a row reservists serve in “operational activity,” from 25 days to 40.

As part of the changes, the IDF also plans to give additional compensation to reservists in combat and other frontline roles.

Amid the war in the Gaza Strip, the IDF has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, although many of them have already been released from duty for now. It marked the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history.

Many conscript troops have finished their mandatory service amid the war and have continued seamlessly as reservists.

The IDF says the planned changes will allow the military to better build up its forces for the developing challenges it faces, and be able to complete its missions with a larger pool of reservists.

The changes will increase the number of active duty reservists five-fold in comparison to 2023, according to the IDF’s estimates.

Early draft notices issued to some 1,300 students in pre-army programs

Illustrative -- Israeli teens run as part of a pre-army preparatory program at the beach at Palmachim, on November 15, 2020 (Flash90)
Illustrative -- Israeli teens run as part of a pre-army preparatory program at the beach at Palmachim, on November 15, 2020 (Flash90)

Some students enrolled in pre-army, yeshiva, and community service programs have begun receiving early draft notices this afternoon, multiple sources confirm to the Times of Israel.

The IDF is advancing by several months the induction of some 1,300 post-high school students who would have otherwise enlisted after their various pre-army programs end in June. The new recruits are to be drawn from those who will go into combat units, in light of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, the IDF has said.

Students who have already been accepted into certain IDF tracks will not be subject to early enlistment, a pre-army academy official told The Times of Israel. Most of the induction dates are at the end of March or in early April.

The IDF and Defense Ministry announced previously that about 850 trainees will be recruited from the pre-army and community service yearlong programs, and about 450 more from Religious Zionist yeshivas, with an emphasis on those already slated to enlist this year.

Bill allowing government to deport family members of terrorists passes preliminary reading 17-6

File: Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen at the Knesset on November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen at the Knesset on November 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A bill allowing the government to deport relatives of convicted terrorists passes a preliminary reading 17-6 in the Knesset plenum.

The bill, sponsored by MK Almog Cohen of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, allows the interior minister to order the deportation of family members who either had advance knowledge of a planned attack or subsequently expressed their support for their relative’s actions.

“The only concern of suicide terrorists is what would happen to their families after the attack,” the bill’s explanatory notes read, asserting that “deporting the families of the terrorists will save the lives of Israeli citizens.”

During the vote, Ra’am (United Arab List) MK Waleed Taha, as well as Hadash-Ta’al lawmakers Ahmad Tibi, Youssef Atauna and Ofer Cassif, left the plenum in protest.

Cohen, who is currently under investigation in a decade-old police brutality case, has courted controversy throughout his short political career.

He has been reprimanded by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee for making racist remarks and was recorded screaming at family members of hostages being held by Hamas in Gaza during a Knesset committee hearing on proposed legislation to impose the death penalty on terrorists.

In talks with Netanyahu, Blinken backs Israel’s fight to ensure no repeat of Oct. 7, as well as a future Palestinian state

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ support for Israel’s right to ensure the terrorist attacks of October 7 are never repeated and stressed the importance of taking all possible steps to protect civilians in Gaza,” says State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller.

They also discussed efforts to release all the hostages in Gaza, and to increase “the amount of humanitarian assistance reaching displaced civilians throughout Gaza.”

Blinken stressed US support for a Palestinian state “as the best way to ensure lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike and greater integration for the region.”

He also stressed the “urgent need to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank and prevent the conflict from expanding.”

UN chief warns of ‘untold consequences’ if Israel expands Gaza ground operation to Rafah

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that if Israel pushes its Gaza ground operation into the southern city of Rafah, it would have “untold regional consequences.”

“I am especially alarmed by reports that the Israeli military intends to focus next on Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been squeezed in a desperate search for safety,” said Guterres, adding that “such an action would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences.”

The UN has previously referred to the situation in Rafah as a “pressure cooker of despair.”

An offensive in Rafah could push Palestinians into Egypt, undermining Israel’s peace agreement with the country and angering the United States. It might also torpedo slow-moving negotiations with Hamas and complicate efforts to release the 132 Israelis who remain hostages in the Gaza Strip since October 7.

Blinken delays evening press conference after Netanyahu announces he’s holding one

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delays his Tel Aviv press conference by at least an hour after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces he will be holding one in Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m.

Blinken was originally scheduled to begin his press conference at 8:15 p.m.

UK lawmakers wear dog tags in support of Gaza hostages during Prime Minister’s Questions

British House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt wears dog tags to identify with hostages held by Hamas in Gaza (Israel Embassy London)
British House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt wears dog tags to identify with hostages held by Hamas in Gaza (Israel Embassy London)

Dozens of British parliamentarians wear dog tags calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas during the Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

The initiative, which takes place on the four-month anniversary of the October 7 Hamas attacks, is the brainchild of Israel’s embassy in London.

Prominent lawmakers participated, including House Leader Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Affairs Committee head Alicia Kearns, and others from the Conservative Party, Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, and others.

“We will not let up,” says Deputy Ambassador Oren Marmorstein. “We will continue to remind Britain and the whole world, we will continue to appear in every debate and in every plenum and we will continue to demand: ‘Release the hostages now!'”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich praises ‘responsible’ 2024 wartime budget

The government’s amended wartime budget for 2024 is a responsible one that will provide the necessary resources for Israel to achieve victory against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich says.

Speaking ahead of a preliminary vote on the government’s amended 2024 budget in the Knesset plenum, Smotrich says that the budget contains “two main components: a dramatic increase in the defense budget and the budgets for other civilian expenses that are necessary for the maintenance of the war, as well as reductions in the rest of the budgets.”

“We submitted a responsible budget that will allow the government to wage the war until victory,” he says, noting that the expenses incurred during the war will not disappear with the end of hostilities.

“Some of the vulnerabilities will accompany us in the foreseeable future and burden the economy. This is a turning point in the Israeli economy that requires the mobilization of the government and all of us as a society. This is a crisis. There is a permanent increase that will accompany us in the coming years in the budget including civilian expenses – additional health, mental health, welfare, pensions, victims of hostilities, compensation and more.”

Widows and bereaved parents clash in Knesset over proposed law on posthumous use of sperm

Heated arguments between widows and bereaved parents break out in the Knesset Health Committee as a proposed new law for the posthumous use of sperm reaches the final stages of preparation for its first reading in the Knesset plenum.

The bill seeks to set comprehensive guidelines for men who wish to give consent for the posthumous retrieval of their sperm and its use by their life partner or parents after death.

Currently, posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) can be done at the request of a widow without any need for legal bureaucracy, but parents who want their dead son’s sperm to be retrieved and preserved must obtain an order from a family court. During the war, this requirement has been eliminated, at least temporarily.

There is no opposition to the bill’s stipulation that a widow should take priority in terms of deciding upon her husband’s death whether she wants to have PSR performed with the intent of her becoming pregnant with his child. The arguments today center on the fact that the bill, in its current formulation, would allow the dead man’s parents wishing to perpetuate his genetic line to step in and request PSR and immediately gain custody of the sperm should the new widow opt not to proceed.

Some present in the committee vehemently oppose the idea of a man’s parents choosing a woman with no relationship to their son to be impregnated with his sperm, and for his offspring to be raised by her. They see this as an affront to the widow who would know that her husband has a child somewhere that she did not give birth to.

Bereaved parents argue they have every right to use their son’s sperm to create a grandchild, and that the widow should not have the final say in the matter.

“It’s not up to a young widow to determine that a man will leave this world childless and not leave a [biological] legacy. Parents should have the priority here. We are the ones who birthed our son, fed him, raised him, and didn’t sleep nights,” says Irit Shahar, who has been fighting to use her fallen son Omri’s sperm for 12 years.

‘No way’ that Israel will accept Hamas ceasefire proposal, Israeli official tells CNN

An Israeli official tells CNN that there is “no way” Israel will accept Hamas’s proposal for a ceasefire.

The Hamas demands include a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire and an eventual end to the war, as well as the release of hundreds of terrorists from Israeli prisons.

The terror group also stipulated that it wants a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, which Israel has said it is not prepared to do.

Blinken says there’s ‘a lot of work to be done’ before final hostage deal is reached

President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets President Isaac Herzog at his residence in Jerusalem to discuss the proposed hostage deal and Hamas’s response and says “there’s a lot of work to be done” before a deal is reached.

“We’re looking at it intensely,” Blinken says of the proposal, “as is, I know, the Government of Israel, and there’s a lot of work to be done, but we are very much focused on doing that work and hopefully, being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted so many months ago.”

“We are yearning and praying for the immediate release of our hostages,” says Herzog. “We want to see them back as soon as possible. The situation is dire. And clearly, Hamas is violating every rule of human behavior in this respect.”

Herzog also emphasizes that Israel is following international humanitarian law and is facilitating the entry of aid into Gaza, an issue over which the Biden administration has been pressing Israel.

“We’ve made it clear in the International Court of Justice in the Hague,” he continued, “we made it clear at all forums that are relevant to this question and as such, we of course condemn and reject any call for hurting or damaging any civilian population anywhere, let alone of course, in this conflict.”

President Isaac Herzog (right) meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

Blinken blames civilian deaths and suffering in Gaza squarely on Hamas.

“There are so many innocent men, women, and children who are suffering as a result of the attacks perpetrated by Hamas, and now being caught in a crossfire of Hamas’s making,” he tells Herzog.

Blinken also sounds an optimistic note about the chances for normalization with Saudi Arabia: “I’ve heard, including in Saudi Arabia, as well as in other places, in Egypt and Qatar, and I do believe that there is a very positive, powerful future that is possible, that genuinely integrates Israel into the region and addresses its most profound security needs to be able to live in peace and genuine security, and also answers the aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

Iran’s Raisi slams US military presence in Middle East, says it ‘disrupts security’

This handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 5, 2024, shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaking in the southern city of Kerman. (Iranian Presidency / AFP)
This handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on January 5, 2024, shows Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaking in the southern city of Kerman. (Iranian Presidency / AFP)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi criticizes the deployment of US troops in the Middle East, saying it “disrupts security.”

“The presence of US forces in our region has no justification,” Raisi says in a Tehran ceremony ahead of the 45th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution on February 12.

Referring to both past and present deployments, he says the US presence “in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the region is in no way creating security. It disrupts the security in the region.”

Raisi’s remarks to foreign diplomats come while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was on a regional tour for talks on a possible ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas after four months of war.

Economy minister issues ultimatum to food companies that hiked prices in wartime

Economy Minister Nir Barkat seen during a meeting with heads of the business sector in Israel in Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023.  (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Economy Minister Nir Barkat seen during a meeting with heads of the business sector in Israel in Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Economy Minister Nir Barkat issues an ultimatum to Israeli food companies that have raised their prices since the October 7 Hamas terror onslaught and subsequent war, warning them that they will be “blacklisted” if they do not reverse course.

The companies that have substantially increased their prices since the start of the war include Tnuva, Osem and Strauss, which raised the price of some items by as much as 25% back in January.

“Since October 7, the State of Israel has been in a long and difficult war, which has serous consequences for the Israeli economy and the public,” Barkat writes in a letter addressed to the companies. “To the astonishment of us all, under the auspices of war, we are witnessing food price increases by large corporations, suppliers and retailers, in almost perfect coordination.”

Continuing, the economy minister says it is unfortunate that his calls for a price freeze until the end of the war were ignored, and accuses the companies of “spitting in the face of the consumers who are loyal to you and enrich your coffers and your pockets.”

He warns the companies that they have 72 hours to reverse the price hikes, and any companies that fail to do so will be put on a public blacklist.

The exact contents of the blacklist and the impact it could have is unclear.

In addition, he says, he is examining various measures that can prevent companies from taking similar action again in the future.

Netanyahu to hold Jerusalem press conference on Hamas hostage deal this evening

After meeting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss a possible hostage deal with Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a press conference tonight in Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m.

This will be the first press conference Netanyahu has held in Jerusalem rather than at the Kirya military HQ in Tel Aviv since the start of the war.

Army says it struck building used by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon village

The IDF says it struck a building used by Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon village of Marwahin.

It adds that fighter jets overnight also struck another site belonging to the terror group in Bani Haiyyan.

A projectile was fired earlier today from Lebanon at the Mount Dov area, hitting an open area, and another projectile was fired at the Shtula area, the IDF says.

It says troops are shelling the launch sites with artillery.

IDF reveals tunnel in Khan Younis used by top Hamas brass, and later to hold hostages

A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024, shows a holding cell inside a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)
A photo released by the IDF on February 7, 2024, shows a holding cell inside a major Hamas tunnel captured by Israeli troops in Khan Younis, southern Gaza (IDF)

The IDF reveals a major Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, previously used by senior members of the terror group and later converted into a hostage-holding facility

Troops of the elite Yahalom combat engineering unit and other special forces under the 98th Division raided the “strategic” underground network, which the IDF says was around a kilometer long.

The IDF says senior Hamas officials had previously resided in the tunnel, and hostages were later held there during the war.

“The troops battled terrorists in the tunnel, breached blast doors and neutralized explosive devices,” the IDF says.

In the tunnel, the army says troops found a holding cell where hostages had previously been kept, a bathroom, and a resting area for the terrorists guarding the hostages.

A total of 12 hostages were held in the tunnel at different times, three of whom have already returned to Israel, the IDF says. It says it also recovered various findings and weapons in the tunnel.

The IDF says the tunnel was built “in the heart of a civilian area in Khan Younis” and according to its estimates, millions of shekels were invested in its construction. It says the tunnel is part of a “branching underground labyrinth” that also connects to another tunnel where hostages were held, revealed by the IDF several weeks ago.

Israeli protesters at Gaza crossing said preventing aid trucks from entering Strip

Channel 12 reports that Israeli activists’ protests against the transfer of aid into Gaza at Kerem Shalom Crossing have so far prevented any trucks from entering the Strip today.

Several dozens protesters slept in tents at the crossing overnight, the report says.

The military previously declared the area a closed military zone to keep activists out, but police enforcement has been intermittent amid pushback by hard-right minister.

Blinken won’t meet one-on-one with IDF chief, after reported objections by PM

A previously scheduled one-on-one meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi will not take place, amid reports that the Prime Minister’s Office opposed a meeting between a foreign diplomat and the military without the presence of elected leaders.

Halevi is participating in the meeting between Blinken and Netanyahu and his aides and members of the war cabinet.

Netanyahu, Blinken meet in Jerusalem to discuss Gaza war

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem to discuss the state of the war in Gaza.

The PMO does not release any details from the one-on-one meeting in its readout, but says it was “long and in-depth.”

Netanyahu greets Blinken with a joke, saying “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“Yeah, it’s been a few weeks,” Blinken responds.

The top US diplomat was last in Israel in early January. The PMO did not release a readout after the January meeting, amid reports that the talks were tense.

Blinken is now meeting with Netanyahu’s aides and members of the war cabinet, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, Military Secretary Avi Gil and other top advisers.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi is also participating.

He is set to meet President Isaac Herzog at 3:00 p.m.

Tel Aviv University says 1 in 3 student reservists are women

Carmel Cohen, 26, a third-year theater arts student at Tel Aviv University, in an undated photo. (courtesy TAU)
Carmel Cohen, 26, a third-year theater arts student at Tel Aviv University, in an undated photo. (courtesy TAU)

A full 34 percent of Tel Aviv University students who were called up for IDF reserve duty after October 7 are women, “a major change in women’s contribution to the war effort compared to the past,” the university says in a press release.

TAU, with nearly 30,000 students, is the largest university in the country. Of the 6,657 students called up for reserve duty, 2,228 were women, the university says. Like the other major universities, the majority of TAU’s mobilized reservists were discharged in late January to return to their studies. Of the more than 2,500 students who were not released, around 29% are women.

“The moment I was called up I didn’t think twice. I reported to the Home Front Command and served for about three months,” third-year theater arts student Carmel Cohen says.

“Every day we helped civilians impacted by the war, and it felt great, everyone doing all they could for the army and the country. These are hard times for us, and we try to help as much as we can. I recently returned to TAU, and I want to realize my dream and become an actress who makes people smile. Of course, whenever I’m called up again, I will go.”

Most of the women reserve soldiers study in the departments of medicine, engineering and life sciences, according to data provided by the university.

Like all the universities, TAU has organized a series of scholarships and benefits for returning students, including grants of up to NIS 9,000 ($2,500).

The academic year for Israel’s universities was scheduled to begin on October 15, but after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war was delayed until December 31. Some 360,000 reservists were called up after October 7, out of whom around 100,000 were enrolled university students.

Terrorist in 2015 Paris attacks transferred from Belgium to France — lawyer

Salah Abdeslam. (YouTube screenshot)
Salah Abdeslam. (YouTube screenshot)

Salah Abdeslam, sentenced to life in jail over Paris jihadist attacks in 2015, has been transferred from Belgium back to France, his lawyer says.

Abdeslam is the only surviving member of the Islamic State cell that killed 130 people in the French capital in November 2015.

Found guilty at trial in Belgium last September over subsequent 2016 attacks in Brussels, his transfer back to France had been blocked due to human rights concerns.

“They came to get him in his cell at 9 a.m. this morning and he left for France,” Abdeslam’s lawyer Delphine Paci tells AFP.

“It’s a flagrant violation of the rule of law,” she says. “There was clearly collusion between the Belgian state and the French state to violate a court decision.”

“This is clearly about a kind of thirst for revenge that has taken precedence over the rule of law,” Paci charges.

Macron at ceremony: Hamas attack on Israel was ‘biggest antisemitic massacre of our century’

French President Emmanuel Macron walks past French Republican Guards who hold portraits of the French victims of the Oct 7, 2023, Hamas onslaught in Israel, during a ceremony at the Invalides monument, Feb. 7, 2024 (Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron walks past French Republican Guards who hold portraits of the French victims of the Oct 7, 2023, Hamas onslaught in Israel, during a ceremony at the Invalides monument, Feb. 7, 2024 (Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool via AP)

French President Emmanuel Macron describes the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel as the “biggest antisemitic massacre of our century” as he hosts a ceremony paying tribute to the French victims.

He describes the attack as “barbarism… which is fed by antisemitism and propagates it,” vowing also not to give in to “rampant and uninhibited antisemitism.”

Deputy school principal arrested for allegedly filming adults, minors in mall bathroom

A deputy school principal has been arrested by police in Ma’ale Adumim for allegedly secretly filming adults and minors at a restroom in a city mall, for sexual gratification.

A judge approved the publication of Avraham Avnaim’s name, saying he had confessed to suspicions against him during his interrogation.

Avnaim works as a teacher at a school in the city.

Senior official to Channel 13: Some of Hamas’s demands entirely unacceptable

Channel 13 news cites a senior Israeli official as saying many of the demands in Hamas’s counterproposal are ones the nation cannot accept under any circumstances.

The official says the question being debated now is whether to reject those demands entirely, or to enter into further negotiations in an effort to soften them.

Outgoing Companies Authority chief hits out again at Minister Amsalem

(L) MK David Amsalem in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022; and (R) Michal Rosenbaum. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Finance Ministry)
(L) MK David Amsalem in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022; and (R) Michal Rosenbaum. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Finance Ministry)

Addressing the State Control Committee, Government Companies Authority director Michal Rosenbaum says Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem, who is assuming control of her department, hopes to use it “to build political clout and status.”

She says it is “the minister’s stated worldview,” expressed “in countless interviews,” that “government companies are not a public resource but a pool of jobs” for his associates.

“Minister Amsalem put huge pressure on me and the Authority to support the appointments of political activists and associates to key roles in government companies and to enable dismissals as part of political revenge.”

Rosenbaum recently announced her resignation following a months-long battle with Amsalem, citing his pending takeover of her department on Monday as the reason.

The Government Companies Authority has traditionally been part of the Finance Ministry, but when joining the cabinet, Amsalem insisted that it operate under his control as part of his agreement with Netanyahu.

Knesset passes preliminary reading of bill to compensate Zaka volunteers for Oct. 7

Zaka personnel remove bodies of Israeli civilians near the Gaza border, October 9, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Zaka personnel remove bodies of Israeli civilians near the Gaza border, October 9, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Knesset approves an amendment to the National Insurance Law to compensate volunteers from ZAKA, a group that handles human remains after terror attacks and other disasters, who worked to identify the victims of Hamas’s October 7 massacre.

The bill notes that as the attacks unfolded, “many volunteers of the Zaka organization came… and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with security forces and reserve officers in clearing the area of the bodies of the murdered, identifying victims and collecting materials that would help bring the murdered to burial as soon as possible.”

These volunteers should be “duly rewarded for their important and effective work alongside IDF soldiers and reservists,” it states.

ZAKA’s work during the attacks has come under scrutiny, with a recent Haaretz report alleging that the organization at times mishandled bodies and used the events to create promotional materials for a fundraising campaign. The organization has said it worked in full cooperation with all authorities and, since it relies on donations to function, took the opportunity to show the public the work it does.

IDF confirms death of Staff Sgt. (res.) Hanan Drori after Gaza injury

Staff Sgt. (res.) Hanan Drori in an undated photo (Courtesy)
Staff Sgt. (res.) Hanan Drori in an undated photo (Courtesy)

The IDF formally announces the death of the reservist who succumbed to his wounds after being injured during fighting in the northern Gaza Strip in December, bringing the toll of slain troops in the ground offensive against Hamas to 227.

He is named as Staff Sgt. (res.) Hanan Drori, 26, a soldier in the 551st Reserve Paratroopers Brigade chief’s forward command team, from Jerusalem.

Drori was wounded on December 17, 2023, in northern Gaza. His regional council said he died of a severe fungal infection he contracted after being wounded.

Netanyahu meets Argentina’s new leader Milei, ‘a great friend’ of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Argentinian President Javier Milei in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Argentinian President Javier Milei in Jerusalem, February 7, 2024 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Calling him a “great friend of the Jewish state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Argentinian Prime Minister Javier Milei in Jerusalem, and thanks him for declaring that he will move his country’s embassy to the Israeli capital.

“We are delighted with your decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move your diplomatic post and also of course, an embassy,” says Netanyahu.

According to the Israeli readout, Milei says his country will also list Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Milei wears a pin with the flags of both countries and a yellow ribbon, a gesture to the 253 hostages taken captive by Hamas on October 7, of whom 132 remain in Gaza, not all of them alive.

The prime minister says the biggest threat “in our area and in yours is Iran.”

Netanyahu also says the two will discuss free markets, something both men champion.

Sky News: Qatar told Hamas that Israel would agree to free 3,000-5,000 prisoners

Citing anonymous sources, Sky News Arabia reports that Qatar told Hamas Israel would agree to the release of 3,000-5,000 Palestinian prisoners, whom Hamas could choose, under a hostage release deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been adamant that Israel would not release thousands of terrorists in a deal.

Sky News also says Qatar is trying to soften Hamas’s demands for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, hoping to replace it with a pledge to push Israel to withdraw its forces.

According to the report, Qatar also offered the return of displaced Gazans to their homes, the construction of new, better, refugee camps, and renewed water and sewage services.

Hezbollah names 2 more killed in Israeli strikes, taking group’s toll to 184

The Hezbollah terror group names two members killed in recent Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon.

It says Muhammad Jaafar Asili and Hussein Muhammad Shams were killed “on the road to Jerusalem,” its term for operatives slain in Israeli strikes.

Their deaths bring the terror group’s confirmed toll of members killed by Israel amid the war in Gaza to 184.

The IDF has been targeting Hezbollah positions in Lebanon in response to the terror group’s daily attacks on northern Israel.

Lapid: 2024 budget update shows government prioritizes religion over health, education

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset on February 5, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting of his Yesh Atid party at the Knesset on February 5, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Zionist dream of creating a Jewish and democratic state has failed, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid declares ahead of a preliminary vote on the government’s amended 2024 budget in the Knesset plenum.

“What is a budget? A budget is a question that the state asks itself: ‘What do I need, and what can I afford?’ A budget deals with national priorities — what is more important to the government, what is less important to it,” Lapid says at a conference sponsored by financial daily The Marker.

“We’ve gotten an answer: In this budget there is an all-time record in payments to yeshiva students who do not enlist” in the IDF as well as “close to NIS 700 million ($192 million)” for Settlements Minister Orit Strock’s “unnecessary ministry for matters of illegal outposts.”

The Ministry of Religious Services has been exempted from the budget cuts being applies to ministries across the board, sending a message to the public that “religious services are more important than health services, more important than the poor and more important than the education of our children,” he says.

“This of course expresses something deeper about their priorities. This government, from its first day, had been telling us: The experiment called ‘a Jewish and democratic state’ has failed. These two concepts contradict each other,” he says, adding that the government is aiming toward “a Jewish and non-democratic state.”

Israeli officials tell news site they can’t accept end to war

IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 6, 2024. (IDF)
IDF troops are seen operating in the Gaza Strip in this handout photo cleared for publication on February 6, 2024. (IDF)

Israeli officials say they cannot accept an end to the war, Ynet reports, after a draft of Hamas demands for a hostage deal was publicized by Reuters. The Israeli officials also say they cannot agree to a Hamas demand for 1,500 prisoners to be released, including many serving life sentences.

The Prime Minister’s Office tells The Times of Israel that it does not have a response to Hamas’s demands beyond its statement last night indicating that it was studying the proposal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken are scheduled to begin their one-on-one meeting at 11:30 a.m. before bringing in their aides.

Israeli hospitals once again seeing malfunctions in medication tracking software

Israeli hospitals are again having problems with a widely used medical software system.

As it has in recent weeks, the system, called Chameleon, is failing to properly manage information about patients’ medications. On January 30, the Health Ministry announced that there had been problems over the prior week but that they had been fixed.

With the renewed failures in the system, the ministry has advised all hospitals that use it to keep backup handwritten records on patient medications.

Hanan Drori, 26, is soldier who died of fungal infection

The Binyamin Regional Council confirms the report on the soldier who passed away from a fungal infection after being seriously injured in Gaza.

He is identified as Psagot settlement resident Hanan Drori, 26.

Drori leaves behind parents and three siblings. He was to be engaged soon, the council says.

IDF says troops killed dozens of Hamas gunmen in Khan Younis over past day

The IDF says ground troops continue to raid Hamas sites across the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli Air Force and Navy strike targets belonging to the terror group.

In western Khan Younis, the IDF says the Paratroopers Brigade battled and killed dozens of Hamas operatives over the past day. The soldiers also discovered and seized weapons used by Hamas, including assault rifles and explosives, the IDF says.

Also in western Khan Younis, the IDF says troops of the Maglan commando unit killed several Hamas gunmen in close-quarters combat, including three operatives who fired anti-tank missiles, and the Egoz commando units raided several Hamas sites, killing operatives in the process and discovering tunnel shafts.

In another area of Khan Younis, the IDF says the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade spotted a Hamas operative near them and called in an airstrike. A short while later, three more operatives were spotted, and were also struck and killed in strikes, the IDF says.

The Givati Brigade, also in Khan Younis, killed several Hamas operatives and located weapons and documents belonging to the terror group, the IDF adds.

 

Hamas proposes three-stage ceasefire over 135 days, leading to end of war

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)
Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

Hamas has proposed a ceasefire plan that would quiet the guns in Gaza for four and a half months, leading to an end to the war, in response to a proposal sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators that was backed by the United States and Israel.

According to a draft document seen by Reuters, the Hamas counterproposal envisions three phases, each lasting 45 days.

The proposal would see the terror group exchange the remaining Israeli hostages abducted on Oct. 7 for Palestinian prisoners. The reconstruction of Gaza would begin, Israeli forces would withdraw completely, and bodies and remains would be exchanged.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived overnight in Israel after meeting the leaders of mediators Qatar and Egypt in the most serious diplomatic push of the war so far aimed at reaching an extended truce.

According to the Hamas counterproposal, all Israeli women hostages, males under 19, the elderly and sick would be released during the first 45-day phase in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails.

Remaining male hostages would be released during the second phase, and remains exchanged in the third phase. By the end of the third phase, Hamas would expect the sides to have reached agreement on an end to the war.

The group, which governs Gaza, says in an addendum to the proposal that it seeks the release of 1,500 prisoners, a third of whom it wants to select from a list of Palestinians handed life sentences by Israel.

The truce would also increase the flow of food and other aid to Gaza’s civilians, with the group demanding 500 trucks a day.

Defense minister meets Mossad chief amid hostage talks

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets Mossad director David Barnea, February 6, 2024 (Shahar Yorman/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets Mossad director David Barnea, February 6, 2024 (Shahar Yorman/Defense Ministry)

Amid negotiations over a hostage deal with Hamas, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held a late night meeting with Mossad director David Barnea.

Gallant’s office releases photos from the meeting, but does not provide any further details.

Last night, Mossad said it had received Hamas’s response to a potential hostage deal and was evaluating it.

Report: Soldier seriously wounded in Gaza dies of fungal infection

Hebrew media outlets are reporting that a soldier seriously wounded in Gaza has died of a fungal infection.

The soldier was injured a few weeks ago amid the war and was hospitalized, but was also found to have caught the fungus, which was able to overwhelm his body.

There is no immediate official confirmation of the matter.

Macron hosts tribute today to 42 French victims of Hamas attack on Israel

France's President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, on February 5, 2024. (Ludovic MARIN / AFP)
France's President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, on February 5, 2024. (Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

President Emmanuel Macron is to hold a ceremony today paying tribute to the French victims of the attack by Hamas against Israel on October 7, with relatives of those killed and held hostage expected to attend.

The presidency also said this week that France will provide an opportunity to remember French citizens killed in the Israeli offensive in Gaza that followed the attack by the Palestinian terror group, without giving a date.

The ceremony at the Invalides memorial complex in Paris will pay tribute to the 42 French citizens killed in the attack on Israel by Hamas and the three others still missing, believed to be held hostage.

It will be attended by the victims’ families, many of whom are being brought to France on a special flight. Every French victim will be represented by a photograph with his or her name.

A presidential official, who asks not to be named, says the tribute will also be a time to remember the importance of the “fight against antisemitism and through it… all forms of hatred, racism and oppression of minorities.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog was invited but will not be present for scheduling reasons, though representatives of the Israeli embassy in Paris will attend.

Water levels at Sea of Galilee rise by another 5 centimeters

The water level at the Sea of Galilee rose by another 5 centimeters (2 inches) yesterday as a result of rains, authorities say.

It is now at 210.295 meters below sea level.

Biden handily wins Democratic Nevada primary

US President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in North Las Vegas, Nev., February 4, 2024. (Stephanie Scarbrough/AP)
US President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in North Las Vegas, Nev., February 4, 2024. (Stephanie Scarbrough/AP)

US President Joe Biden has easily won Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary in Nevada, his second lopsided victory in four days over a mostly unknown field of challengers.

The Associated Press declared Biden the winner at 11:39 p.m. ET based on initial vote results in Washoe County, the second largest in the state, that showed him eclipsing the rest of the field. At the time the race was called, Biden led with about 89% of the vote, with “None of these candidates” a very distant second at about 6%. Self-help author Marianne Williamson was at about 3%. US Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota opted to skip the contest in Nevada and did not appear on the ballot.

On Saturday, Biden scored another big win in South Carolina, where he received about 96% of the vote in the party’s first official contest of the presidential primary campaign. In January, he skipped the unauthorized New Hampshire primary because it violated national party rules. He won the event anyway with about 64% of the vote after supporters mounted a write-in campaign on his behalf.

‘None of these candidates’ wins Nevada GOP primary, a symbolic rejection of Haley

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event at The North Charleston Coliseum, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event at The North Charleston Coliseum, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

The “none of these candidates” option has won in Nevada’s symbolic Republican presidential primary contest, an embarrassing result for Nikki Haley, who was the only major candidate on the ballot.

The former UN ambassador opted to compete in the state-run primary election Tuesday instead of the party’s presidential caucuses, the only contest in the state that awards delegates toward the nomination. Former president Donald Trump is the only major candidate competing in the caucuses on Thursday and will likely sweep the state’s Republican delegates as a result.

Utilizing a quirk of Nevada election law, more voters on Tuesday marked their primary ballots for “none of these candidates” than cast their votes for Haley.

Haley had said beforehand she was going to “focus on the states that are fair” and did not campaign in the western state in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. Her campaign wrote off the primary results with a reference to Nevada’s famous casino industry.

“Even Donald Trump knows that when you play penny slots the house wins,” spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “We didn’t bother to play a game rigged for Trump. We’re full steam ahead in South Carolina and beyond.”

Senate Dems push to require that Biden consult Congress on weapons sales to Israel

Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a Senate committee hearing, June 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Sen. Tim Kaine speaks during a Senate committee hearing, June 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Senate Democrats are pushing to prevent the Biden administration from bypassing Congress when approving weapons sales to Israel as the Jewish state continues its war against Hamas under increasing scrutiny.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia will be introducing an amendment next week that if passed would strike language in the $118 billion national security supplemental allowing for the administration to expedite funding for any future arms sales to Israel without first notifying Congress.

The larger border legislation is increasingly at risk of dying in the Senate amid bipartisan opposition, making it unlikely that the Israel provision will see a vote. Yet the push from Kaine and the majority of the Senate Democratic caucus is the latest example of the growing critique from those in President Joe Biden’s party regarding his handling of the bloody, ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and America’s increasing role in it.

“Congress and the American people deserve full transparency about military assistance to all nations,” Kaine said in a statement to The Associated Press. “No president of any party should bypass Congress on issues of war, peace, and diplomacy.”

The amendment, which has the backing from the chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees, comes after Biden went around lawmakers twice in December to send more than $250 million of weaponry to Israel. Bypassing Congress with emergency determinations for arms sales is an unusual step that has in past administrations been met with resistance from lawmakers who normally have a period of at least 15 to 30 days to weigh in on proposed weapons transfers and, in some cases, block them.

Blinken to meet privately with IDF chief after PM initially rebuffed US request

This composite image shows US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waving as he arrives at Ben Gurion Airport late on February 6, 2024; and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi giving a statement to the media at a base in southern Israel on December 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool and Flash90)
This composite image shows US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waving as he arrives at Ben Gurion Airport late on February 6, 2024; and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi giving a statement to the media at a base in southern Israel on December 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool and Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold his first private meeting today with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office indicated that the premier had rebuffed the senior Biden administration official’s request for the tete-a-tete.

The Israel Hayom daily reported yesterday that Blinken requested the private meeting with Halevi, leading Netanyahu’s office to issue a statement saying the IDF chief would meet with the secretary as part of the premier’s talks with the top US diplomat.

During Blinken’s previous wartime visits, his only meetings with Halevi were as part of sit-downs with the war cabinet that the military chief took part in.

The request to meet Halevi privately suggests that Blinken believes he might give a more honest analysis of the current state of the war without ministers in the room.

Halevi’s is one of four meetings Blinken has scheduled for today, according to the State Department readout. He will first be meeting with Netanyahu at 11:15 a.m. followed by Halevi at 12:15 p.m., Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at 1:30 p.m. and President Isaac Herzog at 3 p.m.

With the meeting with Halevi on the agenda, there apparently is less of a need for a separate sit-down with the war cabinet.

Notably missing from the schedule is a meeting with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz or opposition leader Yair Lapid, though such sit-downs are not always included on the agenda, and there are still gaps in the schedule that would allow for them.

US military says Houthis fired missiles at two ships, causing minor damage to one

WASHINGTON — Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen fired six ballistic missiles at two ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, with one ship reporting minor damage but no injuries, the US military says.

Saudi Arabia fumes, claiming US suggested Riyadh could accept normalization without a ceasefire

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 23, 2024. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry has issued a firey statement rejecting what it claims was US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby’s suggestion that Riyadh is prepared to normalize relations before there is a ceasefire in Gaza and without progress toward Palestinian statehood.

Kirby was asked during a press briefing earlier today whether securing a hostage deal and a Saudi normalization agreement are part of the same US effort. Kirby responded that they’re two distinct tracks, and noted that the US has held “positive” talks with Riyadh on the matter both before and after October 7.

Saudi officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to normalize relations with Israel, even after October 7, but they’ve stressed — as has US Secretary of State Antony Blinken — that no deal can be reached until there is a ceasefire in Gaza and that it must include the creation of an irreversible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

Either because it took Kirby’s separation of the hostage talks from the normalization negotiations to mean that Riyadh would be prepared to establish relations before there is a truce or because it felt the White House spokesman was overly optimistic in his characterization of the talks, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry decides to call him out.

“Regarding the discussions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and in light of what has been attributed to the US National Security [Council] spokesperson, the ministry of foreign affairs affirms that the position of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always been steadfast on the Palestinian issue and the necessity that the brotherly Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights,” the statement asserts.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on February 5, 2024. (Saudi foreign ministry/ X)

“The kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and that the Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip stops and all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip,” the statement adds.

While Saudi officials in recent months have moved away from their long-held position that a fully implemented two-state solution be a precondition to normalization with Israel, they hadn’t yet specified the kind of more provisional steps it would accept in exchange for an agreement with Israel, sufficing with more vague statements regarding improving Palestinian livelihood or creating a pathway toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recognition of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines appeared to be the most detailed stipulation that Riyadh has offered in recent months. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has all but rejected a two-state solution and a large percentage of Israelis would oppose a framework based on the pre-1967 lines, the Saudi statement notably refrains from specifically demanding that Israel be the one to recognize an independent Palestinian state, instead placing the onus on members of the UN Security Council.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, front left, attends a meeting with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Hussein al-Sheikh, during a day of meetings about the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool photo via AP)

“The kingdom reiterates its call to the permanent members of the UN Security Council that have not yet recognized the Palestinian state, to expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, so that the Palestinian people can obtain their legitimate rights and so that a comprehensive and just peace is achieved for all,” the foreign ministry adds.

The statement is issued just one day after Blinken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, in a possible indication that the sit-down did not go well.

Still, by directing the Palestinian state recognition demand at Security Council members, such as the US, rather than at Israel, Riyadh can be seen as presenting Washington with a way around the Netanyahu government’s rejection of a two-state solution.

It also comes less than a week after UK Foreign Minister David Cameron said his government was considering recognizing an independent Palestinian state. Days later, the Axios news site reported that the US was weighing the same step after long rejecting it on the basis that the move should come after Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to a two-state solution.

US House rejects Republican-led effort to pass standalone Israel aid bill

US House Speaker Mike Johnson arrives to a House Republican caucus meeting at the US Capitol on February 6, 2024 in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)
US House Speaker Mike Johnson arrives to a House Republican caucus meeting at the US Capitol on February 6, 2024 in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US House of Representatives rejects a Republican-led bill that would provide $17.6 billion to Israel, as Democrats say they want a vote instead on a broader measure that would also provide assistance to Ukraine, international humanitarian funding and new money for border security.

The vote is 250 to 180, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Opponents called the Israel legislation a political ploy by Republicans to distract from their opposition to a $118 billion Senate bill combining an overhaul of US immigration policy and new funding for border security with billions of dollars in emergency aid for Ukraine, Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson had said the Senate bill was “dead on arrival” in the chamber even before it was introduced. And Senate Republican leaders said on Tuesday they did not think the measure would receive enough votes to pass.

The Israel-only bill’s supporters insisted it was not a purely political stunt, saying it was important to move quickly to support Israel as it responds to the October 7 attack by Hamas terrorists.

The vote was another blow to Johnson, coming right after the House voted against the impeaching Democratic President Joe Biden’s top border official.

The House in a 214-216 vote blocked a committee’s impeachment charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Four Republicans bucked their leadership, joining Democrats in opposing the charges against the Cabinet member.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Syrian media reports casualties in alleged Israeli strike; intel source says airbase was targeted

Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, citing a military source, say a number of civilians were killed and wounded amid an alleged Israeli strike on the Homs area.

SANA says Israeli warplanes launched their missiles from an area north of Lebanon’s Tripoli, targeting several sites in Homs and the nearby area.

The source claims Syrian air defenses shot down some of the Israeli missiles.

In addition to the casualties, SANA says damage was caused to both public and private property.

Local sources tell Reuters that the attack targeted several Syrian army outposts and an airbase in the Homs area, with a Syrian military intelligence source familiar with the matter saying it targeted the Shayrat airbase.

Iranian envoy to UN says Tehran arming, training and ’empowering’ Palestinian terror groups

Iranian Ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Iravani (R) is interviewed in his New York mission on February 6, 2024. (NBC Nightly News)
Iranian Ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Iravani (R) is interviewed in his New York mission on February 6, 2024. (NBC Nightly News)

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations says Tehran is sending weapons, training and empowering Palestinian terror groups.

Asked about Iran’s support for proxy militias in the region, Amir Saeid Iravani tells NBC Nightly News, “In the case of Palestine, we’re sending arms, we’re training them and empowering them. But with the other parts of the region, the resistance parts in the region, we have some coordination, cooperation, consultation, and maybe some financing also.”

The Iranian envoy speculates that strikes by Tehran-backed militias throughout the region would stop if there is a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, noting that the Islamic Republic would support such a truce if it was lasting and allowed for the rehabilitation of the enclave. He says the hostage talks will succeed if “the other side” accepts Hamas’s conditions, which include a permanent ceasefire and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Iravani dismisses US allegations that Iran supplies Yemen’s Houthis with their advanced weaponry, insisting the rebel group has been acting independently with its attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and does not take orders from Tehran.

Blinken arrives in Israel for talks on proposed hostage deal

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Ben Gurion Airport, February 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Ben Gurion Airport, February 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, Pool)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Israel as he attempts to seal a truce in the four-month-old Gaza war.

Blinken, who had flown from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and then Qatar on Tuesday in what is his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East, lands in Israel late in the evening, according to an AFP journalist.

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