The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s developments as they unfolded.
A journalist affiliated with the Lebanese Hezbollah movement has published pictures on social media purporting to show the Israeli woman who crossed the border into Syria surveilling the Lebanese frontier from Israel.
According to al-Manar’s Ali Choeib, the woman was seen near the border in a SUV with an open window in October 2020. At the time, tensions on the border were higher than normal due to Israeli fears of a Hezbollah counterattack following the killing of a commander in Syria.
According to Ynet, the woman was stopped at the time by a senior IDF officer near the border, warned about the danger of being there, and sent away.
The woman was returned to Israel Friday via a swap deal brokered by Russia, two weeks after crossing the border into Syria. Details of the affair, including the woman’s name and pictures of her, have been censored by the military.
תמונותיה של הצעירה הישראלית כפי שצולמו בידי חיזבאללה באוקטובר 2020 תוך כדי התרעה חמה לפיגוע על גדר גבול לבנון מול הכפר עיטא א שעב. בחיזבאללה חשבו בזמנו שמדובר בלוחמת צהל או אשת מודיעין על אזרחי. הסיפור שונה לגמרי. הצעירה עדיין נמצאת הבוקר בתשאול של השבכ בשל המעבר לסוריה. pic.twitter.com/EmhsBPzcaF
— Or Heller אור הלר (@OrHeller) February 21, 2021
The government is advising Israelis to avoid all Mediterranean beaches from north to south due to pollution from a tar spill that has reached Israel’s coastline.
A joint advisory issued by the Health, Interior and Environmental Protection ministry calls on the public “not to go [to the beaches] to swim, or do sports or leisure activity until further notice.”
“Exposure to tar could harm public health,” the advisory reads.
The advisory covers all beaches from Rosh Hanikra, on the border with Lebanon, to Zikim, on the border with Gaza.
The cause of the spill of dozens of tons of tar, among the worst environmental disasters in Israel decades, is still unclear. Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said Saturday an oil spill had been identified about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast a week ago, and that one of 10 vessels that were in the area at the time may have been responsible.
On Saturday, a number of people who volunteered to participate in a cleanup operation of the massive tar spill were hospitalized after inhaling apparently toxic fumes.
Soldiers have now been enlisted to bolster the cleanup effort.
Iran has held “fruitful discussions” with the visiting International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi on Sunday, Tehran’s ambassador to the UN body says.
“Iran and the IAEA held fruitful discussions based on mutual respect, the result of which will be released this evening,” Kazem Gharibabadi, who attended the meeting, writes on Twitter.
Iran and the IAEA held fruitful discussions based on mutual respect, the result of which will be released this evening. pic.twitter.com/phLZcnR4ue
— Gharibabadi (@Gharibabadi) February 21, 2021
There is no immediate comment from the IAEA.
The British government says it aims to give every adult in the country a first dose of coronavirus vaccine by July 31, a month earlier than its previous target.
The new target also aims for everyone over 50 or with an underlying health condition to get a vaccine shot by April 15, rather than the previous target of May 1.
The makers of the two vaccines that Britain is using, Pfizer and AstraZeneca, have both experienced supply problems in Europe. But UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who announced the new targets, says “we now think that we have the supplies” to speed up the vaccination campaign.
The early success of Britain’s vaccination campaign is welcome good news for a country that has had more than 120,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. More than 17.2 million people, almost a third of the country’s adults, have been given the first of two doses of vaccine since inoculations began on December 8.
Britain is delaying giving second vaccine doses until 12 weeks after the first in order to give as many people as possible partial protection quickly. The approach has been criticized in some countries — and by Pfizer, which says it does not have any data to support the delay — but is backed by the UK government’s scientific advisers.
A recent Israeli study pointed to the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine alone conveying 75% immunity from the coronavirus.
The daughter of highly acclaimed Israeli author Amos Oz says her father “serially abused” her, physically and mentally, until his death in 2018.
Galia Oz details her father’s alleged abuses in a new autobiography “Something Disguised as Love,” which has shaken Israel’s image of the novelist, considered among the country’s greatest writers and a perennial Nobel prize favorite.
“During my childhood, my dad beat, cursed and humiliated me,” she writes. “The abuse was creative: He would drag me around the house and throw me onto the stoop outside. He would call me sleazy. He didn’t lose his cool and this wasn’t an occasional slap on the face but a routine of serial abuse. My crime was that I am me, and so the punishment was unending. He needed to be sure I was broken.”
Writer Yehuda Atlas, a friend of Galia Oz, tells Army Radio, “I knew about these stories. It’s hard for us leftists, Amos Oz was our golden prince, but it seems even the moon has a dark side.”
The widow and two children of Amos Oz are pushing back against the portrayal of the novelist as an abusive father as detailed in the autobiography of their daughter and sister.
“We knew a different father. A warm, loving, attentive dad who loved his family,” widow Nili Oz writes in a statement also signed by children Fania and Daniel Oz.
“The claims that Galia levels against him are in total contradiction to our strong memories our whole lives,” they write, adding that they were surprised by the accusations.
An autobiography by Galia Oz calls Amos Oz a “serial abuser,” who used to beat her and humiliate her.
They note that Galia has not been in contact with the family for seven years, and that Oz tried until his dying day to connect with her and understand her claims against him.
“Galia’s pain is likely real and heartbreaking, but we remember differently. Totally differently,” they write.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hosting Egypt’s energy minister, the first public visit by a senior Egyptian government official in five years.
Netanyahu tells Tarek el-Molla that the discovery of gas in the Mediterranean is an “amazing opportunity” for cooperation between Israel, Egypt and other countries on energy and other matters.
He calls the visit an “important day” for the countries’ relationship and says there is enough gas for both to supply their own citizens and become major exporters.
El-Molla says that he is looking forward to talks over the multinational gas forum, which comprises Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and the Palestinian Authority.
The meeting comes as Israel is dealing with a major oil spill, which has highlighted activists’ fears of environmental damage due to energy exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the government will vote on a plan Monday to clean up Israel’s beaches, following a massive oil spill in the Mediterranean.
“[Environmental Protection] Minister Gamilel will bring forward a plan tomorrow, with a budget, to clean up the beaches,” Netanyahu says as he visits the shore to scope out the damage.
The prime minister also says he discussed with the Egyptian energy minister, who is on a rare visit to Israel, the possibility that ships in the region be required to operate on natural gas rather than oil.
“I think that if there’s a union of several countries, within a few years we can create a massive change so that we have a clean sea, a clean country and clean beaches,” says Netanyahu.
His comments come following a massive oil spill off the coast, which is suspected to have resulted in the death of many sea creatures, including a whale whose body washed up to the Israeli shore on Thursday.
An Israeli man has suspended his anti-vaxxer Facebook group after his pregnant sister-in-law, 32, dies of COVID-19.
Osnat Ben Shitrit died of the coronavirus and doctors were unable to save her 30-week fetus in an emergency C-section. The mother of four had no underlying health conditions.
Her brother-in-law tells the Kan public broadcaster: “I formed one of the most successful groups on Facebook against the vaccines. After this incident, I suspended it. When it happens in your backyard, you understand you need to think differently. We understand now the price of the coronavirus.”
Ben Shitrit’s two sisters urge Israelis to get vaccinated.
Arik Rosenblum, director of the Ecoocean nonprofit, tells a Zoom conference of green organizations that 7,000 people have volunteered so far to help clean up the beaches after the oil spill in the Mediterranean, and more are registering.
Ecoocean has sent out a research boat to check whether oil is still floating on the Mediterranean, he says. It is also going to launch a glider, together with the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, to examine the situation along the coast.
Ecoocean has trained 20 people in each coastal authority to deal with such an emergency — to be able to train other volunteers and help the local authority.
Rosenblum is still hoping that beach season will open on time.
A shipment of 20,000 Russian coronavirus vaccine doses donated by the United Arab Emirates arrives in the Gaza Strip via Egypt.
The delivery was arranged by Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled Fatah official who lives in the Emirates and is a rival of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas health spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra says the doses will be given first to at-risk groups.
— حسن اصليح | Hassan (@hassaneslayeh) February 21, 2021
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says a coronavirus variant originating in Uganda has been detected in Israel, without elaborating on the circumstances.
Israel’s main airport has been mostly shut since late January to keep virus variants at bay.
In a briefing to reporters, Ash warns the “pandemic is not behind us,” and warns Israelis to refrain from large gatherings during this week’s Purim holiday.
“You may have prayer services” in accordance with the health rules, he says, “but large meals… and parties — are totally forbidden. They are a danger to the health of us all.”
He further cautions that another outbreak as a result of Purim violations could force the government to impose additional restrictions, or even another lockdown.
Ash also urges all Israelis who have yet to be vaccinated to get the shots, particularly pregnant women.
Health officials are warning of a shortfall of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. They are telling health providers to use the hundreds of thousands of shots arriving in Israel in the next two weeks on those who received the first dose of the vaccine, Channel 12 reports.
But the health officials are worried they won’t have vaccines for the 1.5 million Israelis who have yet to be immunized at all, the network says. Talks are ongoing with Pfizer-BioNTech to increase the supply, it says.
This week and next month, shipments of Moderna shots are set to arrive in Israel. But the health officials say the quantities are small, according to Channel 12.
In spite of the surging coronavirus pandemic, major arms makers descend on a convention center in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, hoping to make deals with militaries across the Middle East.
The UAE unveiled $1.36 billion in local and foreign arms deals to supply its forces with everything from South African drones to Serbian artillery. Although the figure surpasses the 2019 show’s opening announcement, defense experts anticipate a drop in military spending this year as the pandemic and slumping global oil prices squeeze budgets in the Persian Gulf.
The biennial trade fair, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference, is Abu Dhabi’s first major in-person event since the outbreak of the virus — a sign of its significance to the oil-rich sheikhdom that has maintained tight movement restrictions in recent months. Zoom won’t suffice for the 70,000 attendees and 900 exhibitors who rely on the largest weapons expo in the Mideast to scout for potential clients and hawk their latest wares, from armored vehicles to ballistic missiles.
Top Emirati officials, including Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, are on hand, wandering between displays of rifles, rockets and bombs.
But with hand sanitizer as ubiquitous as sterile drone displays, the pandemic’s effects remain visible. Significant national pavilions are absent, including the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter.
Big American companies turn up but kept a low profile. Lockheed Martin representatives standing beside models of stealth F-35 fighters are tight-lipped amid the Biden administration’s review of several major foreign arms sales initiated by former president Donald Trump, including a massive $23 billion transfer of the F-35s to the UAE.
Israeli COVID restrictions also prevented it from joining the expo, which would have been a first after it normalized relations with the UAE last year. A technician at the Israeli Aerospace Industry booth spends a good portion of the afternoon turning away disappointed potential customers.
But scores of other countries have no qualms showing up during the pandemic, underscoring how many have boosted their exports in the region. The flow of arms in the Middle East has increased by 61% over the past five years, according to a recent report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Mobster Zeev Rosenstein wins early release from prison and is freed on parole after over 16 years.
Rosenstein, at one time Israel’s most wanted criminal, was arrested in 2004 and extradited to the United States over drug trafficking charges in 2006. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison, which he has been serving out in Israel.
In 2003, rival crime groups targeted Rosenstein in a bomb attack on a Tel Aviv street. Although Rosenstein survived the hit attempt, three innocent bystanders were killed and 18 injured in the blast, which occurred at the height of the Second Intifada, when Israelis were targeted by repeated Palestinian suicide bombings.
Four people have died from the hemorrhagic Ebola virus during a new outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, officials say, warning that people are resisting measures to contain the highly contagious disease.
Since the epidemic’s resurgence this month, “we have already registered six Ebola cases. We have lost four infected people,” Eugene Syalita, the provincial health minister in North Kivu province in the DRC’s east, tells AFP.
Syalita says one person died Friday and another on Saturday, while the two others died in early February.
Two patients are receiving care at an Ebola treatment center in Katwa near the major city of Butembo, he adds.
Syalita complains that the region’s residents were not taking the new outbreak seriously enough.
“Some families categorically refuse to have their homes disinfected or to hold dignified and safe funerals,” the doctor says.
“People have not yet understood that Ebola has reappeared. Everything is not yet clear for them.”
A vaccination drive was launched last Monday, but as with past outbreaks, people in the region doubt the existence of Ebola and reject measures aimed at checking its spread, including not to touch sick people and not to wash the dead.
Police disperse a crowd of 200 people gathered in violation of the health regulations at Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery and issue some fines, according to Hebrew media reports.
One of those present was supposed to be in quarantine, the Ynet news site says. Some refuse to leave the area.
The reason for the crowding was not immediately clear.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan says Washington has started direct negotiations with Iran on the return of American hostages.
“We intend to very directly communicate with the Iranians about the complete and utter outrage, the humanitarian catastrophe that is the unjust, unlawful detention of American citizens,” Sullivan tells CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue, yes, and we will continue to do so as we go forward,” he says, adding that it will be a “significant priority” for the Biden administration.
Says Biden is "prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians how we get strict constraints" on nuclear program pic.twitter.com/3dDkHHOzHz
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) February 21, 2021
Sullivan says US President Joe Biden is also open to direct talks with Iran on the nuclear deal, adding that Tehran has yet to respond to the offer.
“Joe Biden is intent, determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Second, he believes that hardheaded, clear-eyed diplomacy is the best way to do that. And so he’s prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program. That offer still stands.
“Iran has not yet responded. But what’s happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States, and the ball is in their court.”
Fifteen local authorities — including Tel Aviv and Haifa — announce they will resume in-person classes for grades 7-10 in defiance of government orders.
The middle schoolers and high school freshmen and sophomores are the last age group to remain at home, studying remotely, as part of the pandemic rules.
The cities that intend to flout the order are: Ashdod, Beersheba, Givatayim, Herzliya, Hadera, Holon, Haifa, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Petah Tikva, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, Ramat Gan, Raanana, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
They intend to resume classes by Wednesday.
Police say they’ve arrested the man who broke into a highly sensitive Israeli Air Force base two weeks ago after allegedly stealing a car, leading security forces on an hours-long manhunt. They identify the suspect as a Palestinian national who had entered Israel illegally.
Alongside the Palestinian man, police arrested two Israeli citizens — a taxi driver from the Bedouin town of Arara and a resident of the desert town of Dimona, where the car theft allegedly took place — who are suspected of helping the man make his escape from the base. Their names have not been released.
According to the police, the three men worked as a team to steal the car from Dimona, with the plan being to drive it to the West Bank and resell it there.
When police began chasing the Palestinian suspect, he drove into the base through an open gate, puncturing the tires on security spikes. He continued on foot into the city-sized base, which houses some of the IAF’s most advanced aircraft, leading to a massive manhunt, which ended some seven hours later.
According to the army, the suspect fled the base less than an hour after entering, climbing over several security fences without being detected. Police say the man was picked up by the taxi driver who ferried him to the West Bank, where he’s been hiding out.
All three have been arrested and charges will be filed against them tomorrow in a Beersheba court for “stealing a car, endangering lives on a roadway, entering an IDF facility and being [in Israel] illegally,” police say.
The United States is on the brink of the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic, as the nation’s top virus expert warns a form of normalcy may not return until the end of the year.
Signs of hope are emerging in the rollout of vaccines and the dropping off of a massive winter spike in infections, but the heavy toll continues to mount in a nation that has reported the most fatalities and cases in the world.
“It’s terrible. It is historic. We haven’t seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years, since the 1918 pandemic of influenza,” Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to US President Joe Biden, says on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“It’s something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it’s true,” he adds, as the toll on the Johns Hopkins University tracking website stood at 497,600.
Fauci notes that the number of daily new infections is on a steep decline after peaking in January, but he adds that normal life may still be some way off.
“I think we’ll have a significant degree of normality… as we get into the fall and the winter, by the end of the year,” Fauci says in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The Palestinian Authority and Egypt sign a memorandum of understanding on developing a natural gas field off the coast of Gaza, the parties say.
“The visit to Palestine reflects the direct interest of the Egyptian leadership in cooperation between the two brotherly countries,” Egyptian Energy Minister Tariq al-Mulla says in a statement.
Since it was discovered in 2000, the Gaza Marine field has been seen as a way to bring the Palestinian territories to energy independence. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza currently receive the vast majority of their electricity from Israel.
Political considerations have prevented the development of the field so far, however.
The Palestinian Authority will officially ask Israel to allow Palestinian prisoners to vote in scheduled Palestinian elections in May, a senior Palestinian official says on Twitter.
“We will officially ask the government of Israel to allow Palestinian prisoners in its prisons and detention facilities to exercise their right to vote in the Palestinian elections, as their right given to them by the Palestinian law,” says Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh.
Al-Sheikh, one of the most powerful figures in the PA, is formally responsible for coordinating with Israel. Two weeks ago, he paid a public visit to Palestinian prisoner Marwan al-Barghouti. Some reports said the visit was an attempt to convince the popular Fatah leader, convicted by Israel on terror charges, not to run against aging PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The law gives [prisoners] the right to nominate themselves,” al-Sheikh adds.
Officials in the Health Ministry are meeting on the possibility of imposing restrictions over Purim, with Channel 12 saying they are poised to support a night curfew over the holiday this weekend.
The Kan public broadcaster, however, says no final decision has been made.
The CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, will visit Israel on March 8, Channel 12 reports.
Bourla’s trip comes as Pfizer’s delivery of 10 million vaccine doses to Israel — enough to vaccinate 5 million — is set to be completed. Bourla may bring additional vaccines, Channel 12 says.
Bourla’s visit will come several weeks before the Israeli elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made Israel’s vaccination success a centerpiece of his campaign, touting his personal ties with Bourla, who is the son of Holocaust survivors.
On the heels of the death of a pregnant woman and her fetus from COVID-19, Israel’s television networks publicize health provider data showing that just one-third of pregnant women have been vaccinated.
Israel is recommending that pregnant women get the shots, warning that variants of the virus appear to be hitting pregnant women particularly hard. Fifty pregnant women in Israel are hospitalized with COVID-19, many of them in serious condition.
The Shin Bet security service wraps up its investigation of an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria and was later returned to the country in a Russian-mediated swap.
Investigators rule out a terrorism motive, according to Hebrew media reports.
The formerly ultra-Orthodox woman from Modiin Illit was motivated by “a sense of adventure,” defense officials conclude. The woman is believed to be mentally ill.
The woman is now in police custody, and will soon be treated by the welfare authorities, reports say.
As Israel’s exercise centers reopened to the vaccinated earlier today, 81-year-old Effie Hertzke was among the first to hit the gym — before hitting on the TV interviewer who asked her about it.
“I came straight from work. I really missed it,” Hertzke, a retired nurse who still volunteers at a hospital, tells Channel 12 in American-accented Hebrew.
In an interview with the station’s deadpan interviewer Rafi Reshef, she also rolls up her sleeves to show off her muscles, adding that she continued to work out at home during the pandemic.
— החדשות – N12 (@N12News) February 21, 2021
“Can you see something?” she says, flexing her arm.
“Of course. You can tell you haven’t worked out for a while, but you can get it back, it’s just a matter of time,” replies Reshef.
“Oh! That is disgusting — look at what a body I have,” she says indignantly.
Reshef says he meant it as a compliment, underlining her “potential.”
What else do you want to do before you go home?” he asks.
“Maybe I’ll meet a young man who will invite me for an orange juice or something like that,” she says, laughing.
“Are you married?” she asks Reshef, who replies that he is. “Aw, too bad,” she exclaims.
A Kan public broadcaster poll predicts Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party will fall below the electoral threshold in the upcoming elections.
The survey gives 30 seats to Likud, 18 to Yesh Atid, 14 to New Hope, 12 to Yamina, 9 to Joint List, 8 to Shas, 7 to United Torah Judaism, 7 to Yisrael Beytenu, 6 to Labor, 5 to Religious Zionism, and 4 to Meretz.
The survey indicates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could narrowly form a government with right-wing Religious Zionism and Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties, which would bring him up to 62 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That would make Naftali Bennett’s Yamina the kingmaker in negotiations.
The American Jewish Committee is circulating a petition asking “Saturday Night Live” to apologize for a joke that suggested Israel is vaccinating only its Jewish citizens.
“Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half,” Michael Che, the co-host of SNL’s news parody, “Weekend Update,” says on the most recent broadcast.
“Saturday Night Live’s ‘joke’ isn’t just untrue — it’s dangerous, a modern twist on a classic anti-Semitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of countless Jews throughout the centuries,” the AJC says, in a petition posted online on Sunday that referred to the ancient libel that Jews are responsible for plagues. The petition will be delivered to NBC, the live comedy revue’s broadcaster.
Israel has come under some criticism for refusing to extend its coronavirus vaccination program to West Bank Palestinians, for delaying the delivery of vaccines to Gaza Strip Palestinians, and for not being as robust in its vaccination outreach to Arab Israelis as it is to Jewish Israelis.
Israel’s government says that prior agreements and international law make the Palestinian Authority the responsible authority for West Bank Palestinian vaccinations, and it allowed the delivery of the Gaza vaccines after a short delay. Israeli officials acknowledge a lag in delivering vaccines to the Arab sector, and blame it in part on skepticism in the sector about taking the vaccine.
Hamas will not nominate a candidate in the scheduled Palestinian presidential elections, senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouq tells Al-Jazeera.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree ordering the first Palestinian national elections in 15 years in mid-January.
Observers are skeptical that the elections will actually take place, as similar pledges have fallen through before.
The elections — should they come to pass — will happen in three rounds. First, national legislative elections have been set for May 22, a vote for the Palestinian Authority presidency is set for July 31, and elections for the Palestinian National Council on August 31.
Marzouq’s remarks are likely to come as a relief to aging Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who opinion polls indicate would lose in a head-to-head matchup with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
The cabinet will convene today to discuss a Health Ministry proposal to impose a night curfew from Thursday through Sunday to prevent large gatherings and parties over the Purim holiday.
The curfew would begin at 8 p.m. and end at 5 a.m., Hebrew media reports say. The Health Ministry is also seeking to significantly scale back public transportation and limit movement between cities, according to the reports.
Purim begins on Thursday night in most of Israel and ends Friday evening, though its main festivities are marked in Jerusalem on Saturday night and Sunday.
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