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Finance minister: We’re opening for good — there will be no more lockdowns

Israel Katz says Israel ‘will be first country in the world to return to controlled activity’ starting next week; plans further support to businesses affected by pandemic

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv's Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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

Netanyahu, Gantz squabble as coronavirus cabinet meets on next steps

As the coronavirus cabinet meets to discuss the next actions on the pandemic, the two warring leaders of the government are already squaring off.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that “political considerations must not lead to a swift opening” of the economy, in apparent reference to Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s desire to move forward with opening businesses in the next few days to help alleviate their financial woes.

Netanyahu says reopening must be gradual and careful, in line with virus infection and vaccination numbers.

Gantz, meanwhile, accuses Netanyahu of leaking conversations from the cabinet “for ugly, narrow political interests.” He compares such acts to leaking sensitive information from a military operation.

He tells the premier: “I will not forgive you for accusing me of intentionally endangering human lives” — a reference to a leak from a previous meeting.

Firefighters battle Afghan-Iran border blaze for a 2nd day

Firefighters struggle for a second day to battle a massive fire that began when a fuel tanker exploded at a major crossing in Afghanistan’s western Herat province on the Iranian border, officials say.

At least 20 people were injured and many of the more than 500 trucks lined up at the Islam Qala crossing carrying natural gas and fuel are still ablaze, according to Afghan officials and Iranian state media.

Two explosions at the border crossing were powerful enough to be spotted from space by NASA satellites. One blast erupted around 1:10 p.m. Afghan time (0840 GMT), the next around a half-hour later at 1:42 p.m. local (0912 GMT).

Herat provincial Gov. Wahid Qatali says first responders were quickly overwhelmed Saturday by the huge, out-of-control fire. “When each cylinder was exploding it was flying 100s of meters high,” he says.

A fire caused by burning oil tankers is seen after an explosion at the Islam Qala border with Iran, in Herat Province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021 (AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi)

National security adviser: Central problem is 570,000 unvaccinated age 50 and up

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat tells the coronavirus cabinet that Israel’s central problem at the moment is the fact that some 570,000 people age 50 and over have not yet been vaccinated, the Ynet news site reports.

Ben-Shabbat says local authorities should be given data on who has not vaccinated so they can make efforts to get those people inoculated. The attorney general says there are privacy concerns in such a course of action.

Ashkenazi meets Cypriot FM as nations agree on travel deal for vaccinated citizens

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets visiting Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides.

He welcomes the agreement between the nations to allow coronavirus-vaccinated citizens of the two countries to travel between them without limitations.

The two also discussed various regional and bilateral issues, “including the decision of the International Crimical Court” that it has jurisdiction to investigate Israel for possible war crimes against Palestinians.

Ashkenazi says Israel rejects the decision, “which is legally wrong… rewards Palestinian terror and [the Palestinians’] rejection of a return to direct negotiations.”

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (R) meets visiting Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides in Jerusalem, February 14, 2021 (Foreign Ministry)

Gantz asks JNF to delay ‘sensitive’ move to authorize West Bank land purchase

Defense Minister Benny Gantz asks the Jewish National Fund to delay a planned move to authorize the purchase of private Palestinian land in Area C of the West Bank for the development of existing settlements.

Gantz writes to JNF chief Avraham Duvdevani that the decision is “a highly sensitive” one with potential repercussions “in the international arena as well as in relations with the incoming US administration and relations with Diaspora Jewry.”

As the minister overseeing much of Israel’s activity in the West Bank, Gantz asks that the move be delayed until it can be properly reviewed.

Gov’t looking at bill to force teachers, health workers to vaccinate or test

The government is considering legislation to force workers in contact with the public to be either vaccinated or tested for coronavirus every 48 hours, according to multiple reports.

Among the jobs the legislation would target are teachers, healthcare workers and public transportation drivers.

Children wearing face masks make their way to school in Safed on their first day back to classes on November 1, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry warns of ‘misleading, dangerous’ claims by anti-vaxxer rabbi

The Health Ministry is warning the public against the exhortations of anti-vaccination Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov to beware of the coronavirus vaccines.

The rabbi is “misleading and irresponsibly endangering his listeners,” the ministry says.

It notes that Asherov “does not hold a license for medical practice or any other health profession… His claims are dangerous and misleading to the public and private individuals.”

Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov (YouTube screenshot)

Asherov, who advises numerous Israeli celebrities, has released videos falsely claiming the vaccines cause infertility and damage to the immune system, and can even be fatal. “There are fears that the coronavirus vaccine can be fatal, causes infertility… and severe allergies that can be fatal,” he said in one clip. “Scientists are saying this. It’s not me who’s saying this.”

Many of his videos have been viewed 100,000-200,000 times.

There is no evidence to support Asherov’s claims, which have been debunked by health experts.

Leading in vaccination, Israel said hoping to host major UEFA games

With Israel far ahead of Europe in its coronavirus vaccination campaign, Israeli officials are hoping the Jewish state could host some decisive UEFA Champions League and Euro matches this spring, including possibly the finals.

The Israel Football Association reached out to UEFA last week with an offer to host some Euro 2021 soccer games, Channel 12 reports.

The European league said it would consider the offer, particularly if the continent’s thus-far lackluster efforts to inoculate its population continue to lag, the network says.

Austria’s defender Martin Hinteregger (C) scores during the UEFA Euro 2020 Group G qualification football match Austria v Israel in Vienna on October 10, 2019. (HERBERT PFARRHOFER / APA / AFP)

Israel’s coronavirus morbidity rates remain high, but its vaccination drive continues to lead globally, with over 3.8 million of its 9 million citizens receiving at least the first vaccine dose.

Son of Iran’s last shah tells Israeli paper ‘no doubt’ regime nearing its end

The exiled son of Iran’s last shah tells the Israel Hayom newspaper he has “no doubt” that the regime there is nearing the end of the line.

“The gradual erosion of faith and trust in Islamist rule since the revolution has accelerated in the last decade,” Reza Pahlavi says.

“In the last three years, the change has been so drastic that only a few in Iran still believe that the young generation will long tolerate this oppressive regime from the dark ages.”

He also attacks the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, saying it gave Tehran the funds to intimidate Arab regimes and engage in “destructive and destabilizing actions.”

Reza Pahlavi, former Crown Prince of Iran, speaks about current events in Iran at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC on January 15, 2020. (EVA HAMBACH/AFP)

He says, “Through its armed proxies, the Islamic Republic has vast regional superiority in low-intensity warfare. But it fears escalation to high-intensity engagement, where it has technological inferiority. That is why it wants a nuclear umbrella, to deter high-intensity escalation.”

Meanwhile, the nuclear deal “guarantees no escalation, the regime gets what it wants and continues to achieve its regional expansionism through low-intensity operations. But the West loses what it needs: peace and stability in the region.”

Ministers okay plan to bring in more daily flights for stranded Israelis

The coronavirus cabinet approves a plan to bring more so-called rescue flights into Ben Gurion Airport for Israelis stranded abroad. The airport remains shuttered for normal flights.

The plan will see approval for up to 2,000 arrivals a day starting on February 20, with flights split evenly between Israeli and foreign airlines.

That last part is apparently in reaction to a US demand that Israel allow US airlines to fly in, or the US would prevent El Al flights from landing in the country.

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on February 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

JNF discusses move to enable purchasing Palestinian lands in West Bank

The Jewish National Fund has holds a preliminary discussion on the possibility of purchasing Palestinian lands in the West Bank for settlement expansion purposes.

“The preliminary discussion that took place today revolved around general principals of action, based on a legal opinion that was requested and received during the previous management term,” JNF says.

Further discussions on the matter will be held before the board of directors votes on the matter.

Virus czar: We’re very worried about Purim; must consider curfew, closure

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash tells the coronavirus cabinet it needs to consider a nighttime curfew or even a tight closure on the Purim holiday, on February 25-26.

Ash says health officials are very worried about mass celebrations on the holiday and drastic steps may be necessary “in order to prevent our traumatic experiences from last year.”

Purim parties in 2020 are believed to have contributed greatly to the first wave of COVID-19 infections in Israel. And Israel now faces the UK variant of the virus which is far more infectious than the original strain.

Revelers celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem on March11, 2020, when guidelines restricting gatherings were already in place. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Haredi leader says he supports opening synagogues for vaccinated only

United Torah Judaism head Moshe Gafni tells Army Radio he supports opening synagogues for vaccinated people only.

“A person who is unvaccinated won’t go into the synagogue, will stand outside,” he suggests. He notes that under current conditions synagogues “are closed anyway” so there is nothing to lose by such a move.

Gafni bristles at the suggestion that ultra-Orthodox are ignoring health rules without paying penalties.

Chairman of the Degel haTorah party Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I have many Haredi friends who haven’t opened their business in 200 days. People are hungry for bread. There’s no difference between Haredim and others.”

Protesters say French anti-radicalism law is anti-Muslim

Activists rally in Paris to demand that the French government abandon a bill aimed at rooting out Islamist extremism that the protesters say could trample on religious freedom and make all Muslims into potential suspects.

French lawmakers hold a key vote Tuesday on the draft law, which is expected to win approval in both houses of parliament. The legislative debate comes amid lingering fears of extremist violence after an Islamic radical beheaded a history teacher and other recent attacks.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government argues that the bill is needed to protect French values like gender equality and secularism, and to prevent radical ideas from taking root and inspiring violence.

But those at Sunday’s protest say France already has legal tools to do this, and that the bill stigmatizes the country’s No. 2 religion even though the majority of French Muslims do not espouse extremist views.

A man speaks on stage as protesters demonstrate against a bill dubbed as ‘anti-separatism’ in Paris on February 14, 2021 (GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP)

Clalit HMO: 94% drop in symptomatic infections in vaccinated people

A new study by Israel’s largest healthcare provider, Clalit, shows a 94% drop in symptomatic infections in people vaccinated for coronavirus, and a 92% drop in serious illness among those who do fall ill.

The study reviewed 600,000 people who’ve received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and compared them to 600,000 people not yet vaccinated. The study compared vaccinated individuals to unvaccinated ones with similar medical characteristics, allowing a very detailed examination of the vaccine’s effect, the HMO says.

It shows the vaccine is as effective in people over 70 as it is in younger individuals.

The study follows one by the Maccabi HMO published last week that showed that of half a million people vaccinated with both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, only 544 people — or 0.1% — were subsequently diagnosed with coronavirus, only four suffered severe illness, and none died.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Safed on February 14, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Carlos Menem, who led Argentina during AMIA terror bombing, dies at 90

Carlos Menem, a former Argentine president who delivered short-lived economic stability and forged close ties with the United States in the 1990s, even as he navigated scandal and enjoyed an often flamboyant lifestyle, has died.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández confirmed the death of the 90-year-old former leader, who had been ailing in recent weeks.

In 2019, a court absolved Menem of charges that he tried to interfere with the investigation into Argentina’s deadliest terrorist incident — the bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in 1994 that killed 85 people.

Former Argentine president and then-senator Carlos Menem before hearing his sentence during his trial over accusations of attempting to block the 1994 AMIA bombing investigation, in Buenos Aires, on February 28, 2019. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)

The ruling came in a trial ordered in August 2015 on allegations that Menem and other officials tried to divert attention in the bombing investigation away from a Syrian businessman who was a Menem family friend.

Relatives of victims of the bombing at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association rejected the ruling.

Myanmar braces for crackdown on anti-coup protests

Myanmar is bracing for a crackdown on anti-coup protests after reports of tanks in the street and troop movements in the country’s largest city amid fears of another nationwide internet blackout.

Much of the country has been in uproar since soldiers detained Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted her government, ending a decade-old fledgling democracy after generations of junta rule.

Troops have briefly moved some armored vehicles around Yangon, days after security forces stepped up arrests targeting a civil disobedience movement that has seen huge crowds throng streets in big urban centers and isolated frontier villages alike.

An armored vehicle in Yangon, Myanmar on February 14, 2021. (AFP)

A US embassy-affiliated Twitter account warns of possible telecommunications interruptions “between 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.” on Monday local time.

Police have also warned the public not to harbor fugitives, as they are hunting seven people who have lent vocal support to the protests, including some of the country’s most famous democracy activists.

Ministers move to give local authorities data on unvaccinated

The coronavirus cabinet has approved in principle a plan to advance legislation to provide details to local authorities on residents who have not vaccinated, in order for them to encourage such residents to do so.

The health and justice ministries will formulate a proposal on the matter, which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit earlier warned raises privacy concerns.

Some 2,000 doses of Russian vaccine set to arrive in Gaza Monday

Approximately 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine are set to arrive in Gaza tomorrow, Hamas health official Majdi Dahir tells official Hamas media.

The Palestinian Authority received 10,000 doses of the Russian vaccine in early February as a donation from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shipment was the first series of coronavirus immunizations to reach Ramallah since the beginning of the pandemic.

Illustrative: Workers unload a shipment of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V, at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela, February 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

Despite the rift between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, which is based in West Bank, and the Hamas terror group, which controls the Gaza Strip, the PA has said it is responsible for sending vaccines to Gaza.

An Israeli defense official says that the Palestinian Authority has already submitted a request for the vaccines to enter Gaza. The Israeli security apparatus has yet to approve the request, he says.

“The request is being examined by the National Security Council. So far, there has been no approval. It could be the case that in an hour, there will be,” the official says.

Iran’s army test fires short-range ‘smart’ missile

Iran’s army test fired a sophisticated short-range missile today, state media reports.

The report by the official IRNA news agency quotes the chief of the army’s ground forces, Gen. Kioumars Heidari, as saying that the missile’s range was 300 kilometers, or 186 miles.

Gen. Heidari says the “smart” missile is capable of working under “any weather condition.” He does not say where the test took place.

Health Ministry confirms it may move to vaccinate recovered COVID patients

The Health Ministry confirms to Channel 12 that it is considering changing its policy on vaccinating those who have recovered from COVID-19.

Recent data has shown that at least 861 Israelis have been diagnosed with coronavirus over three months after recovering, the network says.

Health experts suspect it is possible that those who are asymptomatic or who suffer only light symptoms do not develop long-term immunity.

UAE’s first ambassador to Israel is sworn in by country’s PM

United Arab Emirates Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum swears in the first ambassador to the State of Israel, Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khajah.

It is not yet clear when Al Khajah will arrive in Israel.

In late January, Israel officially opened its embassy to the UAE as Ambassador Eitan Na’eh arrived in Abu Dhabi.

On Parkland massacre anniversary, Biden calls for tougher gun laws

Americans, including President Joe Biden, join a Florida community in remembering the 17 lives lost three years ago in the Parkland school shooting massacre.

“In seconds, the lives of dozens of families, and the life of an American community, were changed forever,” Biden says in a statement.

The president uses the occasion to call on Congress to strengthen gun laws, including requiring background checks on all gun sales and banning assault weapons.

There is no time to wait, the president says. “We owe it to all those we’ve lost and to all those left behind to grieve to make a change. The time to act is now.”

People light candles at a makeshift memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 18, 2018, where 17 students and faculty were killed in a mass shooting days earlier in Parkland, Florida (AP Photo/ Gerald Herbert, File)

Health Ministry data shows 90% of Israelis over 60 fully vaccinated

Health Ministry data shows 90 percent of Israelis over age 60 have now been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, Channel 12 reports, with 152,000 still unvaccinated in that age group.

In ages 40-60, 73% have vaccinated, with 503,000 to go.

In the 16-40 age group, some 50% have fully vaccinated, with 1,506,000 to go.

Finance Minister Katz: This’ll be last opening; there will be no more lockdowns

Finance Minister Israel Katz tells Channel 12 of the expected opening of much of the economy next week: “This will be the last opening. There will be no more lockdowns… It’s going to open for good.

He says: “We will be the first country in the world to return to controlled activity,” apparently referring to countries that have been closed down by the pandemic.

Katz says he backs a gradual opening in two main stages, one next week and another in early March.

He says he will introduce a plan to the cabinet to provide further support to businesses affected by the pandemic.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Russians stage Valentine’s Day flashmobs to support Navalny

Residents of Moscow and Saint Petersburg stage Valentine Day’s flashmobs in residential courtyards and public squares, lighting their phone flashlights in support of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Supporters of President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic take to the streets in freezing temperatures following his team’s call to stage 15-minute rallies and post pictures of the gatherings on social media this evening.

Young people turn on the flashlights of their mobile phones in support of jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny near Red Square in Moscow on February 14, 2021. (Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

It is not immediately possible to estimate the scale of the rallies, but small groups of up to several dozen people were seen staging pro-Navalny flashmobs across Russia’s two biggest cities.

Protester Alexander Kozhokar, one of around 50 people who lit their phone lights on Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin, says he fears that Russia is turning into a “dictatorship.”

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