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Israel strikes Gaza after over 20 rockets pound south

Sirens continue to wail in southern Israel, sending thousands to bomb shelters, as violence spikes around Strip

The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)
The smoke trail of a rocket, fired by Palestinian terrorists, flying over the Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

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

Minister warns foreign actors may spread false info on virus to impact election

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan says he has instructed police to be ready for the spread of false information about the coronavirus to influence the March 2 elections.

“It can’t be ignored that we’re a week and a half before the elections and of course there is a concern there will be implications of the corona[virus] on the elections themselves and elements who will try to harm the integrity of the elections, distribute false reports — fake news — on the matter in order to influence the voting percentage in certain areas,” Erdan says during a situational assessment on the virus at the Health Ministry.

He adds: “It must be understood that this is of course a crime of harming the purity of the elections.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chimes in that the Shin Bet security agency is also prepared for dealing with foreign actors trying to spread “fake news” about the virus to influence voting.

Neither Netanyahu nor Erdan identifies anyone who might potentially do so. US officials said yesterday that there was a Russian-linked social media campaign to spread panic about the virus.

During the meeting, Erdan also says police will help with enforcing Health Ministry guidelines on home quarantines.

3rd passenger from Japan cruise ship dies of coronavirus

TOKYO — A third passenger has died after contracting the coronavirus on a cruise ship that was quarantined off Japan, the country’s health ministry says today.

In a statement, the ministry identifies the victim as a Japanese man in his 80s who was also suffering from other ailments.

He was removed from the Diamond Princess and taken to a local hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, the statement says, without giving details on when he tested positive or where he was being treated.

The man’s cause of death was given as pneumonia, the statement adds.

The death comes after two other elderly passengers, also both Japanese and in their 80s, died on Thursday after contracting the virus.

Despite a quarantine imposed on the Diamond Princess, more than 600 people on board tested positive for the virus, including five Israelis, one of whom was confirmed to have the virus after returning to Israel.

— with AFP

Iran’s state TV: Hardliners win all seats for Tehran in vote

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian hardliners have won all 30 Parliament seats in the capital, Tehran, state TV reports, but officials have yet to announce the voter turnout from parliamentary elections two days ago.

State TV also says that former Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a top contender for the post of parliamentary speaker, is the top winner in Tehran with more that 1.2 million votes.

Officials have still not released any figures for voter turnout, which is widely seen as a measure of how Iranians view the country’s embattled theocratic government.

A low turnout could signal widespread dissatisfaction with Iran’s clerical rulers and the system they preside over. Iranian officials usually release turnout figures a day after elections.

The official IRNA news agency says ballot counting had come to an end, with 201 out of 208 constituencies decided. The seven relatively small constituencies will be decided in a run-off election later in April.

Iran’s supreme leader earlier today accused enemy “propaganda” of trying to dissuade people from voting by amplifying the threat of the coronavirus.

A range of crises has beset Iran in the past year, including widespread anti-government protests in November and US sanctions piling pressure on the plunging economy.

— AP

Elections panel looking at opening special voting booths for Israelis under self-quarantine

The Central Elections Committee says it is looking into setting up special voting stations for Israelis under self-quarantine over concerns they may have the coronavirus.

In a statement, the committee notes people under quarantine are currently barred from leaving their homes by the Health Ministry, and that it is therefore also looking into enlisting special teams who would serve at these polling places and where the stations would be set up.

Israeli cycling team races in Dubai tournament for first time

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An Israeli cycling team races through Dubai today, taking part in the UAE Tour for the first time in the latest overture between the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations.

Gulf Arab nations have made a number of recent moves hinting at warmer ties with the Jewish state, with Israeli athletes and officials increasingly allowed to visit.

“Israel Start-Up Nation will make history on Sunday by competing in the UAE Tour, becoming the first Israeli team to participate in the Middle East’s top cycling race,” the team says in a statement.

Israel Start-Up Nation cycling team members pose before the start of the first stage of the UAE Tour in Dubai on February 23, 2020. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

“The participation in this race by our Israeli team in a Middle Eastern nation is emblematic of how cycling can be a force for diplomatic openness and progress,” its co-owner Sylvan Adams says.

Like all Arab countries, except for Jordan and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates has no official relations with Israel.

But Israel Start-Up Nation’s members, with their country’s name emblazoned on their blue and white shirts, posed on stage before the week-long race kicked off in Dubai.

The team says they were surprised by the warm reception they received in the UAE, where expatriates make up about 90 percent of the population.


Tel Aviv Marathon said likely to be canceled over virus fears

The Tel Aviv Marathon, which is scheduled for Friday, is expected to be canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus, according to Hebrew media reports.

During an emergency meeting today at the Health Ministry, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman called for canceling the race, as some runners would be coming from overseas, the reports say.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said a decision on the matter will be made tomorrow, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The Jerusalem Marathon, set for March 20, could also be canceled, according to the Walla news site.

Pope Francis appears to warn against Trump peace plan

ROME — Pope Francis has cautioned against “unfair” solutions aimed at ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a speech today during a visit to the Italian southern port city of Bari to reflect on peace in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Francis laments the many areas of war and conflict, including in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Francis speaks of “the still unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with the danger of not fair solutions, and, thus, presaging new crises.”

The pope doesn’t cite any specific proposals.

A new US peace plan would let Israel annex all of its settlements along with the strategic Jordan Valley. It would give the Palestinians limited autonomy in several chunks of territory with a capital on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but only if they meet stringent conditions.

In the same speech, Francis takes a swipe at populist politics. “It scares me when I hear some speeches by some leaders of the new forms of popularism,” he says. He also laments that waves of refugees fleeing conflicts, climate change consequences and other adversity are “depicted as an invasion.”

Among the prelates gathered for his speech in Bari’s Pontifical Basilica of St. Nicholas are churchmen from the Balkans, Jerusalem and Algeria.

— AP

Pope Francis kisses a a baby as he greets faithful in St. Nicholas Basilica, in Bari, Italy, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Settlement residents protest reported plan to quarantine South Koreans there

Residents of Har Gilo burn tires at the entrance to the West Bank settlement to protest reported government plans to put some 200 South Korean tourists in quarantine there.

“The more the disease spreads, the responsibility will on your hands for the endangering of Gush Etzion and Jerusalem residents,” the Ynet news quotes locals writing in a letter to Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

Netanyahu said to order all South Koreans be flown out of Israel

Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered that all South Koreans in Israel to quickly be flown out of the country, according to Channel 12 news.

The network says the Foreign Ministry is also expected to issue a travel advisory to South Korea and Japan in the coming hours.

The report comes a day after the Health Ministry said nine South Korean tourists recently in Israel had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending hundreds of Israelis who were in proximity to the Koreans into home-quarantine.

US team en route to Israel to work on maps for West Bank annexation — TV report

An American team is en route to Israel to work on mapping areas of the West Bank that the Jewish state will annex under the Trump administration’s peace plan, Channel 12 news reports.

After US President Donald Trump unveiled his peace plan at a White House ceremony in January attended by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli leader said plans to annex parts of the West Bank would be approved by the government within days.

However, the White House put the brakes on the move, saying areas the peace plan envisions being part of Israel must first be mapped by a joint US-Israeli committee, pushing off any potential annexation to some point after the March 2 elections.

Netanyahu said earlier this month that Israel has already begun the mapping process, which the US has indicated will take at least a few months.

Belgian carnival with anti-Semitic motifs kicks off

The annual carnival procession in the Belgian town of Aalst is currently underway, once again featuring many anti-Semitic motifs.

One float shows the “Wailing Wall” and has caricatures of Orthodox Jews complaining.

“Done with all the ‘nagging,'” one sign reads. “I don’t have a big nose,” says another.

Some participants are dressed up as Gestapo officers, wearing a sticker reading “UNESTAPO” on their, long black coats. This is meant to poke fun at UNESCO, which earlier this year dropped the Aalst carnival from its list of intangible cultural heritages.

— Raphael Ahren

People dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jews are pictured before the start of the Aalst Carnival’s on February 23, 2020, in Aalst, Belgium. (James Arthur Gekiere/AFP)

Israel issues travel warnings for South Korea, Japan over virus outbreak

The Foreign Ministry issues travel advisories for South Korea and Japan following a surge of coronavirus infections in the East Asian countries.

“We recommend to Israelis to seriously weigh travel to South Korea at this time and to completely avoid the areas of Daegu, Cheongdo,” the ministry says in a statement.

It also advises any Israelis in South Korea to consider leaving the country.

Concerning Japan, the ministry says Israelis should avoid any non-essential travel there.

Israelis citizens returning from South Korea and Japan or who were there in the last 14 days must quarantine at home for two weeks upon their return, the ministry says.

The Israeli embassies in Seoul and Japan are continuing operations as usual.

Netanyahu vows to push for wiping criminal records of marijuana offenders

Prime Minister Netanyahu says he will seek to wipe the criminal records of Israelis convicted for possessing or using marijuana.

“I examined the matter and decided to advance the erasure of criminal records of tens of thousands of Israelis for personal use and cannabis possession, something that causes unnecessary suffering to many and a burden on the courts,” Netanyahu writes on Twitter.

He adds: “[Justice] Minister Ohana has begun work on the matter and he will head a committee with professionals and Green Leaf [party] chairman Oren Leibovich, which will examine importing the Canadian model for regulating a legal market in Israel.”

It is not immediately clear how Netanyahu would be able to clear the records of Israelis convicted for marijuana crimes. Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws give the power to grant pardons to the president.

The promise from Netanyahu to consider legalization comes just over a week before the March 2 elections. He made a similar vow ahead of elections in April and, before a second round of elections in September, pledged to liberalize the medical marijuana market.

Education minister confirms ban on Poland trips over virus fears

Education Minister Rafi Peretz confirms that school trips to Holocaust sites in Poland will be canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus.

According to figures from The Associated Press, there have not been any confirmed cases of the virus in Poland.

Gantz on Netanyahu’s marijuana campaign vows: He’s selling ‘illusions’

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz dismisses Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to work toward wiping the criminal slates of marijuana offenders and to appoint a committee that will weigh legalization.

“What you didn’t do during 10 years you won’t do in another 10 years,” Gantz writes on Twitter. “[For] years you sold illusions to the sick who need medical cannabis and to our youth in an attempt to gather votes.”

“Save your spin at the expense of the sick for yourself,” he adds.

Rocket warning sirens sound in Gaza border communities

Incoming rocket alert sirens sound in the city of Ashkelon and surrounding communities.

Additional sirens are heard in the community of Kibbutz Kissufim, east of the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli military says it is looking into the matter.

— Judah Ari Gross

Italy cancels Venice carnival in bid to halt spread of virus

CODOGNO, Italy — Scrambling to contain a rapidly rising number of new coronavirus infections in Italy, the largest amount outside Asia, Italian authorities step up measures to ban public gatherings, including stopping Venice’s famed carnival events, which has drawn tens of thousands of revelers to a region that is now in the heart of the outbreak.

“The ordinance is immediately operative and will go into effect at midnight,” announces Veneto regional Gov. Luca Zaia, whose area includes Venice. Carnival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the lagoon city, would have run through Tuesday. Buses, trains and other forms of public transport — including boats in Venice — were being disinfected, Zaia tells reporters.

Authorities say three people in Venice have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, all of them in their late 80s and who are hospitalized in critical condition.

Nearly all of Italy’s 133 cases are clustered in the north, at least 25 of them in the Veneto region.

— AP

Further rocket warning sirens heard in communities near Gaza

Sirens are heard throughout the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip in what appears to be a large barrage of rocket fire.

The military says it is looking into the matter.

— Judah Ari Gross

No reports of injuries, damage after rocket barrage from Gaza

The rockets fired at southern Israel have all appeared to have been intercepted by the Iron Dome or landed in open fields outside of populated areas.

The local councils for the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev and Hof Ashkelon regions say they have received no reports of direct injuries or damage caused by the rocket fire.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service says it has received no calls about injuries caused by the rockets.

— Judah Ari Gross

Trump congratulates Sanders on Nevada caucus win

US President Donald Trump is congratulating Bernie Sanders for his Nevada caucus win.

Speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to India, Trump declares it a “great win” for the Vermont senator but adds “we’ll see what happens” with the rest of the nomination fight.

Trump adds of Sanders, “I don’t care who I run against, I just hope that they treat him fairly.” He goes on to say, without proof, that “there’s a lot of bad things going on” and that he hopes it won’t be a “rigged deal” in the primary.

Some of Sanders’s supporters in 2016 charged that the primary was rigged against him, and a portion stayed home on Election Day, which many political observers believe helped contribute to Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton that year. Sanders has said he expects fair treatment from party leadership this cycle.

Trump also weighs in on recent news that Sanders has been briefed by US officials that Russians are working to help his candidacy. The US president says that “nobody told me about it” and speculates, without evidence, that the news was a “leak” from Democrats on Capitol Hill because “they don’t want Bernie Sanders to represent them.”

— AP

After rocket fire, Liberman calls government’s Gaza policy ‘a disgrace’

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman issues strong criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Gaza policy after a barrage of rockets are fired from the Palestinian territory toward Israel.

“Just this week Israel enabled Hamas to receive payment of tens of million dollars of protection money. Hamas received the money, waited for the Qatari envoy to leave the Strip and immediately begin firing,” Liberman writes on Twitter.

Liberman calls the government’s policy toward the Gaza Strip “simply a disgrace” and says it is undermine Israeli deterrence.

Yesterday, Liberman revealed that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the head of the IDF’s Southern Command recently traveled to Qatar to discuss a ceasefire in Gaza with Hamas, the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip.

Liberman said the two asked Qatar to continue making periodic payments to Hamas.

High Court rejects settlement’s petition against quarantining of South Koreans

The High Court of Justice rejects a petition from residents of the Har Gilo settlement against plans to quarantine some 200 South Korean tourists there.

Iran’s neighbors impose travel bans as coronavirus death toll rises

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s confirmed death toll from the new coronavirus rises to eight today, the highest outside China, sending neighboring countries scrambling to contain the outbreak.

Turkey says it will “temporarily” shut its border with Iran, while Pakistan also says it is closing its frontier with the Islamic Republic and Afghanistan bans all ground and air travel between the two nations.

The moves come amid growing regional concerns about the spread of the virus.

Jordan says today it will bar entry to citizens of China, Iran and South Korea and other foreigners traveling from those countries.

Jordan’s minister of state for media affairs, Amjad Adayleh, says the decision was part of “preemptive measures… following the rise in cases of coronavirus” in the three countries.

He says the ban would be “temporary” and imposed on all non-Jordanians.

The Kuwait Port Authority meanwhile announces a ban on the entry of all ships from the Islamic Republic.


Islamic Jihad: Gaza rocket fire a response to ‘Zionist enemy’s crime’

The military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group appears to take responsibility for a barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, saying it was a response to the “Zionist enemy’s crime that led to the martyrdom” of one of its fighters.

The al-Quds Brigades was referring to Israel’s killing of an Islamic Jihad fighter earlier today who the IDF said was placing a bomb along the border. An IDF bulldozer crossed the border fence to retrieve the body, prompting clashes with Palestinians.

Islamic Jihad named the Palestinian as Muhammad al-Naem, 27.

PM, defense minister to huddle with security chiefs after Gaza rocket fire

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, and senior members of Israel’s security forces will meet in the military’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss the situation in the Gaza Strip, following a large rocket attack on southern Israel from the Palestinian enclave.

The meeting is due to begin at 7:30 p.m.

— Judah Ari Gross

Video from Gaza shows firing of rockets toward Israel

The Kan public broadcaster publishes video from the Gaza Strip appearing to show the launching of a barrage of rockets this evening toward southern Israel.

Gantz says Netanyahu’s government being held ‘captive’ by Hamas

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz comes out swinging against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy toward the Gaza Strip, after a barrage of rockets is fired from the Palestinian enclave at Israel.

“The Israeli government is a captive of Hamas,” Gantz writes on Twitter. “[Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar is extorting Netanyahu and he is paying him in dollars of cash.”

“That’s how it is in the Middle East. Whoever doesn’t initiate, gets it,” Gantz adds.

Islamic Jihad praises Gaza rocket fire, says ‘the resistance is mobilizing’

Islamic Jihad releases a statement praising the firing of rockets from Gaza this evening toward Israel.

“We praise this response that was carried out by the resistance in retaliation for the crime that the enemy perpetrated this morning against the martyr Mohammed al-Naem and its maltreatment of his pure body,” the statement says.

It adds: “We affirm that the resistance is mobilizing in case the occupation carries out greater aggression and that it is prepared to respond to it.”

— Adam Rasgon

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirms death of its leader

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has confirmed the death of its leader Qassim al-Rimi and appointed a successor, the SITE monitor says today.

The announcement came in an audio speech delivered by AQAP religious official Hamid bin Hamoud al-Tamimi, says SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist networks worldwide.


Rocket warning sirens sound in Ashkelon

Rocket warning sirens sound in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon.

The IDF says it is looking into the matter.

Sirens are also heard in Kibbutz Kissufim.

Islamic Jihad’s military wing claims responsibility for Gaza rocket barrage

The Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, officially claims responsibility for a barrage of rockets fired earlier this evening from Gaza toward Israel.

“The Al-Quds Brigades declare its responsibility for the bombardment of the Zioniat settlements this evening, which came in response to the martyr and fighter Mohammed al-Naem’s assassination and the maltreatment of his body. We will respond to any aggression.”

— Adam Rasgon

Shrapnel from Iron Dome interceptor reportedly damages vehicle in Ashkelon

Initial reports from the city of Ashkelon indicate that a piece of shrapnel from an Iron Dome interception struck an empty, parked car, damaging the vehicle.

The Eshkol region of southern Israel says there are no immediate reports of injuries from the latest barrage of rocket fire.

A regional spokesperson says the incoming projectiles appear to have landed in open fields outside the community of Kissufim.

“There are no physical injuries. It is not yet known if there is damage,” the spokesperson says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Likud overtakes Blue and White in TV poll, but still short of majority

2nd TV poll says Likud the largest party, also predicts right falling short of majority

Ashkelon cancels school Monday following Gaza rocket fire

The Ashkelon Municipality announces that there will be no classes at schools in the southern coastal city tomorrow, following this evening’s rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

IDF says total of 21 rockets fired from Gaza

The military corrects its initial assessment of how many rockets were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

The IDF says in total 21 projectiles were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip in two waves of rocket attacks this evening, with 13 of them being intercepted by the Iron Dome.

Initially, the military said that approximately 20 rockets were fired in the first barrage alone, with 10 of them being shot down.

— Judah Ari Gross

Rocket sirens sound in Sderot, nearby communities

Fresh rocket sirens sound in the town of Sderot and surrounding communities.

The military says it is looking into the matter.

— Judah Ari Gross

2nd Israeli brought back from Japan cruise ship tests positive for coronavirus

A second Israeli who returned from the cruise ship quarantined off Japan has tested positive for the coronavirus, Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer says.

“An examination that was done at the central laboratory of the Health Ministry found that an additional passenger who returned from the ‘Diamond Princess’ ship in Japan was found to be positive,” the hospital says.

It stresses the person was not infected in Israel and has been isolated and is being monitored.

Rocket fired from Gaza strikes field outside southern community

The Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel says that at least one of the rockets fired toward it from Gaza struck an open field outside a community.

There are no reports of injuries or damage.

— Judah Ari Gross

IDF begins striking Gaza targets in response to rockets; sirens sound in south

The Israeli military says it has begun conducting airstrikes on Palestinian Islamic Jihad sites in the Gaza Strip in response to multiple barrages of rockets fired at southern Israel throughout the evening.

Shortly after the Israeli counter-attack began, sirens again sounded in the town of Sderot and surrounding communities, sending thousands of people rushing to bomb shelters.

There were no immediate reports of injuries on either side.

IDF says it targeted Islamic Jihad rocket squad: ‘A hit was confirmed’

The Israeli military says one of its aircraft targeted a group of Palestinian Islamic Jihad members preparing to launch rockets from northern Gaza.

“A hit was confirmed,” the IDF says.

There are no immediate Palestinian reports on the casualties.

Schools canceled in south as Gaza fighting escalates

The IDF Home Front Command orders schools to close in the communities closest to the Gaza Strip, including the cities of Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot, in light of the ongoing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Large outdoor gatherings are also forbidden, and residents of the area are only permitted to go to work if their business is in close proximity to a bomb shelter, the military says.

These restrictions are in effect in the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev, Hof Ashkelon, and Sdot Negev regions.

There are no special safety instructions for the rest of the country.

Fresh rocket sirens sound in Sderot, surrounding area

Fresh rocket sirens sound in the town of Sderot and the surrounding area, following an earlier barrage of six rockets fired at the region from the Gaza Strip.

— Judah Ari Gross

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