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Gantz says ‘no problem’ with criminal probe of failed firm he once headed

Blue and White chief expresses confidence in law enforcement, accuses Likud of pushing for investigation into Fifth Dimension; Netanyahu: ‘The public must know the truth’

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz during a conference in Tel Aviv on February February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz during a conference in Tel Aviv on February February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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

Thailand unhappy with Israel’s entry ban over coronavirus concerns

BANGKOK — Thailand’s government is scrambling to cope with new travel restrictions after Israel banned the citizens of Thailand and three other Asian countries and territories from entering over concerns about a new virus.

Israel on Monday announced it was refusing entry to all foreign nationals who had traveled to Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau during the past 14 days. Israeli citizens and residents will be isolated at home for 14 days after their return from areas at risk.

Thai Foreign Ministry Deputy Spokesman Natapanu Nopakun says the country’s ambassador ín Tel Aviv had asked Israel to review its decision to ban Thais.

“We believe that Israel will reconsider the decision as Thailand isn’t the only country affected from the announcement,” he tells The Associated Press.

Israel had already in late January imposed a similar ban on foreign nationals entering from China.

The latest ban could inconvenience business travelers from Singapore, which like Israel is a major hub for high-tech projects.

The consequences for Thailand could be more substantial. About 25,000 Thai workers are employed in Israel, mostly in the agricultural sector. In many cases they are the main breadwinners for their families in Thailand’s economically disadvantaged northeast.

— AP

Iran announces 3 new cases of coronavirus after 2 deaths

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran says that three more people have been infected with the new coronavirus that originated in central China, following an announcement yesterday that two people had died of the illness caused by the virus in the Iranian city of Qom.

All schools and universities, including religious Shiite seminaries, are shut down in the holy city of Qom, according to the official IRNA news agency. Other news reports says Iran had recently evacuated 60 Iranian students from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the epidemic.

Qom, located around 140 kilometers (86 miles) south of the capital, Tehran, is a popular religious destination and a center of learning and religious studies for Shiite Muslims from inside Iran, as well as Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. It is also known for its cattle farms.

An official in Iran’s health ministry, Kiyanoush Jahanpour says on his twitter account that the number of confirmed cases of the virus in Iran was five, including the two elderly Iranian citizens who died yesterday in Qom.

IRNA reports that the three new cases are all Iranians residing in Qom, with one of the infected having visited the city of Arak. Mohammad Mahdi Gouya, Iran’s deputy health minister, says they did not appear to have had any contact with Chinese nationals.

— AP

Pompeo meets Saudi king for talks focused on Iran threats

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met today with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in a visit focused primarily on discussing shared security concerns about regional rival Iran.

Following his meeting at the royal palace with the king, Pompeo heads to a Saudi air base where some 2,500 US troops are stationed in response to threats from Iran.

American troops were sent to Saudi Arabia last summer as part of the Trump administration’s efforts to beef up the United States’ military presence in the Middle East in response to escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran following US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers and impose sanctions on the country.

Saudi Arabia and the US have blamed Iran for an attack last summer against Saudi oil facilities that temporarily halved the kingdom’s daily crude production. Iran denies involvement and its allied Yemeni rebel Houthi group says they were behind the attack.

— AP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Saudi King Salman, right, at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 20, 2020. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

Merkel condemns ‘poison’ of racism after suspected far-right shooting

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemns the “poison” of hatred and racism running through German society, after a suspected right-wing extremist shot dead nine people at a hookah bar and a cafe in the city of Hanau.

“Racism is a poison, hatred is a poison and this poison exists in our society and it is already to blame for far too many crimes,” Merkel tells reporters.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement to the press on February 20, 2020, at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Tobias Schwarz/AFP)

Netanyahu says he’s lifted building freeze on East Jerusalem neighborhood

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces he has lifted restrictions on construction of the controversial Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, saying 3,000 homes will be built for Jewish residents there.

The plan for construction in Givat Hamatos was first brought forward in 2012, prompting widespread condemnation in the international community as it would cut off the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Safafa and Sharafat from the West Bank, something critics say would place a nail in the coffin of a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 lines.

Netanyahu says that in addition to the 3,000 units in Givat Hamatos, he also green-lit 2,200 units in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa as well as 1,000 homes in nearby Beit Safafa, which has long suffered from a housing crisis.

“Coexistence in Jerusalem,” he boasts to reporters from a hilltop near Har Homa. “Jerusalem is being built and expanded. We are connecting all parts of the united Jerusalem. I have removed all the restrictions, and now Jerusalem is being built under my authority.”

This appears to have been the first time Netanyahu has publicly admitted to having placed a building freeze on the Givat Hamatos plan, explaining he had been under immense pressure from other countries not to build there.

— Jacob Magid

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in front of the Har Homa neighborhood in East Jerusalem on February 20, 2020. (Screen capture/Twitter)

Peace Now: New East Jerusalem building plans a ‘serious blow’ to two-state solution

The Peace Now settlement watchdog group calls Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement of the construction of new housing units in East Jerusalem a “serious blow” to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“This is the last point that can allow territorial contiguity between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem — the most significant Palestinian metropolitan area — and if the neighborhood is built, it will not be possible to connect the two cities,” the group says in a statement.

The group calls the move “another cynical election exercise” by Netanyahu and questions whether his transitional government has the legal authority to move forward with the new construction.

It also says despite Netanyahu’s backing of the recently unveiled Trump peace plan, “he is doing everything possible to preclude the chances for peace and prevent a resolution of the conflict.”

Remand of sex offender rabbi extended in miracles-for-cash investigation

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court extends by six more days the remand of Rabbi Eliezer Berland.

Berland, a convicted sex offender, is suspected of pocking millions of shekels from terminally ill patients who he promised to miraculously cure.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a remand hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on February 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Plane carrying Israelis from quarantined cruise ship departs Japan

A chartered plane carrying 11 Israelis who were quarantined on a cruise ship off Japan takes off for Israel.

The Israelis, who are expected to touch down overnight, will be quarantined for two weeks at Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv.

Another four Israelis who were aboard the ship remain hospitalized in Japan after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Israelis who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan are seen on a plane bringing them to Israel, February 20, 2020. (Israeli Embassy in Japan)

Tel Aviv mayor threatens to sue culture minister Miri Regev for claiming he’d sought to ban tefillin

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai threatens to sue Culture Minister Miri Regev over her claim that he would bar people from donning ritual phylacteries in the coastal city.

A letter from Huldai’s lawyers say the claim is “without any basis” and calls on Regev to apologize to the mayor or pay damages of NIS 100,000.

It also clarifies that tefillin stands are permitted in the city but cannot be set up within 100 meters of a school.

Regev quickly fires back at Huldai.

“Ron Huldai, you don’t threaten me… Who authorized you to prevent Jews from putting on tefillin in public spaces?” she writes on Facebook.

The letter from Huldai’s lawyers came in response to comments Regev made yesterday at a Likud campaign event in Acre.

“You know the mayor of Tel Aviv announced he won’t approve putting on tefillin in the street,” she said. “There is nothing more Jewish than tefillin.”

Abbas spokesman slams Netanyahu announcement of new East Jerusalem construction

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas denounces Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that he would advance thousands of new housing units in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s insistence to build thousands of new settler units on the territories of the Palestinian state is a systematic destruction of the two-state solution,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh says in a statement carried by the official Wafa news agency.

File: Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, speaks at a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 5, 2017. (Flash90)

Blue and White MK suggests PM won’t fulfill new East Jerusalem building promise

A hawkish lawmaker from the Blue and White party criticizes Prime Minister Netanyahu for announcing the lifting of building restrictions in an area of East Jerusalem, suggesting the premier will not live up to his word.

“Netanyahu surprises almost every week: [He] almost annexed the [Jordan] Valley, almost applied [Israeli] law to Ma’ale Adumim, almost cleared Khan al-Ahmar and now almost canceled the freeze that [he] imposed on building in Har Homa,” Zvi Hauser tweets.

Hauser, a member of the Telem faction in Blue and White, was a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu.

Blue and White MK Zvi Hauser at the Knesset on May 6, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Turkey says 2 of its soldiers killed by airstrike in Syria

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s Defense Ministry says two Turkish soldiers have been killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province. Five other soldiers are wounded in the attack.

The deaths bring to 15 the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib.

A ministry statement posted today to Twitter says Turkey’s military is responding to the attack. It doesn’t provide further details, or say where in Idlib the attack occurred.

The ministry claims that as many as 50 Syrian government soldiers were killed and that five tanks, two armored personnel carriers and other equipment were destroyed.

The Russian military says militants in Idlib had launched a massive offensive on Syrian army positions near Nairab, under the cover of Turkish artillery, adding that four Syrian soldiers were wounded by the Turkish artillery barrage.

“The militants’ actions were supported by the Turkish artillery fire, which allowed the militants to break through the Syrian army’s defenses,” it says in a statement.

The military adds that at the Syrian military’s request, Russian Su-24 bombers then struck the militants to prevent them from advancing and allowing Syrian government forces to “successfully repel all attacks.”

It isn’t immediately clear whether it was the Russian airstrikes that killed the two Turkish soldiers.

— AP

Vatican to open archives of WWII-era pope Pius XII

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s archives on pope Pius XII are poised to be unsealed, with historians hoping to uncover previously hidden details about one of the most controversial popes in history.

The papacy of Pius XII lasted from 1939 to 1958, tumultuous years that covered World War II, including the Holocaust. Pius XII remains a controversial figure as he never publicly condemned the Nazi regime.

“The opening of the archives is decisive for the contemporary history of the church and the world,” Cardinal Jose Tolentino Calaca de Mendonca, the church’s archivist and librarian, tells reporters today.

In this photo dated September 1945, Pope Pius XII, wearing the ring of St. Peter, raises his right hand in a papal blessing at the Vatican. (AP Photo)

When the archives are unsealed on March 2, researchers will be able to delve into a wide variety of topics.

“From religious history to political history, from the government of the church to the relations of the Holy See with states and the international community,” says the cardinal.

The controversy over Pius XII hinges on whether the head of the Catholic Church, a former diplomat of the Holy See in Germany, remained too silent during the Holocaust, never publicly condemning the Nazis.

One hundred and fifty researchers from around the world have already requested access to the archives, says Bishop Sergio Pagano, who heads the Vatican’s central “apostolic archives.”

First to be served will be those from the American Holocaust Memorial Museum and representatives of the Jewish community in Rome, he says. Researchers will compete all year long for about 20 places available in the central archives.


US sanctions Iranian officials for barring candidates from upcoming elections

WASHINGTON — The United States slaps sanctions on five Iranian officials in charge of vetting candidates for this week’s parliamentary elections, in which thousands have been barred from running.

The targeted officials include Ahmad Jannati, a powerful cleric accused of overseeing the disqualification of candidates as part of the Guardian Council. The ultra-conservative also plays a key role in a body that selects the regime’s supreme leader.

“The Trump Administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favor the regime’s malign agenda, and this action exposes those senior regime officials responsible for preventing the Iranian people from freely choosing their leaders,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says in a statement.


Israelis who violate self-quarantine could face 7-year prison sentence

The Health Ministry says that Israelis caught violating a mandatory home quarantine for travelers recently in East Asia could face a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Those who knowingly violate the quarantine could be sentenced to seven years in prison, while those who do so out of negligence could get a three year sentence, according to the ministry.

Travelers returning from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Thailand must self-quarantine for 14 days over concerns they may carry the new coronavirus.

UK police detain suspect after stabbing at London mosque

LONDON — British police say a man has been stabbed at one of London’s main mosques.

The Metropolitan Police force says officers were called this afternoon to the London Central Mosque near Regent’s Park.

The force says officers found one man with stab wounds and paramedics treated him at the scene before he was taken to a hospital. There is no immediate word on his condition.

Police say another man was arrested at the mosque on suspicion of attempted murder.

On Twitter, mosque-goers post images of police holding a man down on the mosque floor.

Witnesses say the injured man was the mosque’s muezzin, the person who calls Muslims to prayers.

— AP

East Jerusalem boy shot by police loses sight in eye

A nine-year-old Palestinian boy who was shot in the face by Israeli police in a tense East Jerusalem neighborhood last week will not regain vision in his left eye despite surgery, a local community leader who is in touch with the family says.

Malik Eissa was hospitalized after being struck by a non-lethal munition on Saturday. Residents say he had just gotten off a school bus in the Issawiya neighborhood when Israeli police opened fire.

Police said at the time that they had responded to rioting in the neighborhood and used non-lethal weapons, which usually refers to rubber-tipped bullets and sponge rounds that can cause serious injury but are rarely fatal. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said an investigation into the incident is underway.

Mohammed Abu al-Hummus, a community leader who has been regularly visiting the family at the hospital, says Eissa lost vision in the eye following surgeries yesterday. He says doctors will operate again in the coming days to try and preserve the eye itself.

Issawiya residents say police have been carrying out near-daily raids in their neighborhood for several months that frequently ignite demonstrations and clashes. The police blame the violence on local youths, who they accuse of throwing stones and firebombs at patrol vehicles.

— AP

Malik Eissa rests at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, February 20, 2020.(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

AG indicates Gantz not suspected of wrongdoing during time at failed cyber firm

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has given the green light to the State Attorney’s Office to proceed as it sees fit in regard to Fifth Dimension, a cybersecurity firm that was headed by Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz before it went bankrupt.

A letter from an aide to Mandelblit said Dan Eldad, the acting state attorney, has looked into the files related to Fifth Dimension and heard the opinions of relevant officials in the State Attorney’s Office.

“The attorney general agreed with the acting state prosecutor that if any suspicions arise in the future different from those today which justify the involvement of the attorney general, they will be brought before him for his instruction and decision,” the letter states.

Hebrew media says that indicates Gantz is not considered a potential suspect, as Mandelblit would be involved in the case if he were.

The letter was in response to a call by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party for a probe to be opened immediately into Fifth Dimension, after Hebrew media reports said an investigation would begin after the March 2 elections.

Netanyahu, who will stand trial next month on graft charges, has accused law enforcement of going after him but not looking into the conduct of his political rivals.

Trump ally Roger Stone sentenced to 40 months in prison

WASHINGTON — Roger Stone, a staunch ally of US President Donald Trump, has been sentenced to 40 months in prison after the Justice Department backed off its original sentencing recommendation of at least seven years.

— AP

Roger Stone arrives for his sentencing at federal court in Washington, February 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

UK police rule out terror in London mosque stabbing

LONDON — British police say they’re not treating as terror related a London mosque stabbing in which an elderly man suffered non-life threatening injuries.

The London ambulance service says the victim had been taken “to a major trauma centre” after the mid-afternoon attack.

“A 29-year-old man, who is believed to have been attending prayers, was arrested inside the mosque on suspicion of attempted murder,” the London police say in a statement.

“The incident is not being treated as terror related at this time.”

The police say the victim was a worshiper in his 70s and his condition is “non life-threatening.”

A statement issued by the London Central Mosque where the attack occurred says the assailant was apprehended by worshipers until the police arrived at the scene.

It says the mosque’s Muazzin — a religious leader who calls the faithful to prayer — “did not sustain any life-threatening injuries but was seriously injured and is being treated at the hospital”


Prosecutors to open criminal probe into failed cyber firm that was led by Gantz

Acting State Attorney Dan Eldad has decided to open a criminal probe into failed cybersecurity firm Fifth Dimension, according to Hebrew media reports.

Fifth Dimension was headed by Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz before it went bankrupt. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicated earlier this evening that Gantz is not suspected of wrongdoing.

Gantz says ‘no problem’ with criminal probe of failed firm he once headed

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz reacts to prosecutors’ decision to open a criminal probe into Fifth Dimension, a cybersecurity firm he headed before it went bankrupt.

“I have a lot of confidence in law enforcement and have no problem with any probe they want to do. To me, there are no criminal elements in this matter,” Gantz is quoted saying by Hebrew media during an event in Tel Aviv.

He accuses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party of pushing for the probe to distract from the premier’s corruption trial, which will begin next month.

Prosecutors have not explicitly said Gantz is not a suspect but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit earlier indicated that the Blue and White chief isn’t.

Netanyahu on Fifth Dimension probe: ‘The public must know the truth… before the elections’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts to prosecutors’ decision to open a criminal investigation into Fifth Dimension, a failed cybersecurity firm that was headed by the premier’s political rival Benny Gantz.

“The public must know the truth, here and now, and before the elections,” Netanyahu says in a statement.

Netanyahu, who will stand trial next month on graft charges, has repeatedly accused law enforcement of going after him but not pursuing purported wrongdoing by his rivals.

Vigils held in Germany after 9 killed in suspected far-right shooting

HANAU, Germany — Thousands of people take part in vigils across Germany after a gunman with apparent far-right beliefs killed nine people at a hookah bar and a cafe in the city of Hanau.

Hundreds of people, many carrying candles or a white rose, gather in silence in Hanau this evening to show solidarity with the victims.

Large crowds also gather in Frankfurt and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, some carrying signs that read “Take racism personally” or “Never Again!” in scenes replicated across dozens of German cities.


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