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Netanyahu says he expects Biden will phone him soon: ‘Our alliance is strong’

US president has yet to call Israeli leader after taking office last month

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talk before a dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner, Pool)

The Times of  Israel liveblogged Monday’s developments as they unfolded.

Teen indicted over torching of bus during Bnei Brak riot

An ultra-Orthodox teenager, 16, has been charged with torching a bus during violent riots in the central Israel city of Bnei Brak last month.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters set a bus on fire during a protest against the enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 25, 2021. (Screen capture/ Twitter)

The teenager is also indicted on charges of throwing stones at passersby.

The teenager was allegedly part of a mob that pulled a driver from his bus and beat him, lightly injuring him before setting the vehicle on fire.

The vehicle was completely gutted before firefighters could reach the scene, with the flames burning through nearby electric cables and causing a blackout in parts of the ultra-Orthodox city located near Tel Aviv.

Several residents of nearby buildings were evacuated amid fears the bus could explode.

Man arrested over stabbing in Netanya

Police have arrested a suspect after a stabbing in the coastal city of Netanya earlier today.

The suspect is said to be around 50 years old. He is accused of stabbing another man, seriously injuring him.

Police ruled out terrorism as a motive, without elaborating on the circumstances.

As Netanyahu goes to court, Gantz says no one above the law

Defense Minister Benny Gantz responds to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance in court in his corruption trial, calling it a “sad” but “important” day.

“This is a hard and sad day for Israel and every citizen has a lump in the throat, but also an important day in which every person understands that no one is immune from the law,” Gantz says in a video message posted to social media.

“We are all equal before the law, including you, prime minister,” says Gantz.

“For long months the justice system has been under unprecedented attack,” he says, referring to accusations by Netanyahu and his supporters that the cases against the prime minister are unfounded and a politically motivated attempt to drive him from office.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands at a hearing in his corruption trial at the district court in Jerusalem, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/AP)

Gantz accuses Likud of trying to harm the justice system through legislation, incitement, and in the media. “That is something that threatened Israeli democracy,” Gantz says.

Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud lawmaker who in December left to set up his own New Hope party to directly challenge Netanyahu in the coming March elections, called for politics to be kept out of the trial proceedings.

“This is a hard day for all of us and a hard day for Israel,” says Sa’ar, speaking to reporters during a campaign tour in the city of Raanana. “This is a matter that politicians from all sides should not become involved in.”

“The judicial procedure must be allowed to be carried out without any kind of political pressure,” says Sa’ar, who at the time he left Likud accused Netanyahu of bending the party to his personal needs, including regarding the criminal cases against him.

Iran dismisses French offer to mediate with US on nuclear deal

Iran appears to dismiss an offer by France to mediate between the United States and the Islamic Republic in order to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

“The nuclear deal has no need for a mediator,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tells reporters without specifically mentioning France, but in response to a question about recent comments by the country’s president.

Emmanuel Macron said last week he was ready to act as an “honest broker” in talks between the new US administration of President Joe Biden and Tehran after the multilateral deal was torpedoed by ex-president Donald Trump.

“I will do whatever I can to support any initiative from the US side to re-engage in a demanding dialogue, and I will… try to be an honest broker and a committed broker in this dialogue,” Macron said.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shake hands after a meeting at the United Nations headquarters on September 23, 2019, in New York. (LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP)

Fatah, Hamas begin Cairo talks ahead of Palestinian elections

Key Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas open talks in Cairo aimed at clearing the way for the first elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006, Egypt’s state television says.

“The national dialogue sessions are underway in Cairo under the auspices of (Egyptian) President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi,” it reports.

Before his departure to Cairo, Fatah’s delegation head Jibril Rajoub was upbeat, telling AFP: “We are confident we will overcome any obstacles in going ahead with legislative elections slated for May 22.”

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, hosts by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh Arouri (on screen from Beirut) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

On the agenda are thorny issues such as judicial and security arrangements for the vote and the fate of Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem.

The polls will be the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in 15 years.

The terror group Hamas won an unexpected landslide in the last vote, a victory not recognized by PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, leading to bloody clashes the following year and a split in Palestinian governance.

Fourteen Palestinian political groups are taking part in the sessions sponsored by Egypt, as it seeks to leverage its regional clout.

The talks come on the same day as an emergency Arab League meeting, also held in Cairo, to discuss the Palestinian cause.

Yavne mayor says city won’t allow unvaccinated to teach

The mayor of Yavne says teachers will only be able to return to class if they’re vaccinated.

In a statement, Zvi Gov-Ari says kindergartens and daycares will not be able to reopen at all unless their teachers are fully vaccinated or are tested for the virus daily. Other school teachers will be banned from giving classes in-person unless they’re vaccinated, he adds.

It’s unclear if Gov-Ari could enforce such an order, as Israel is not requiring teaching staff — or anyone — to be inoculated.

Yavne is currently considered a “red” or high-infection zone, with 435 active cases.

All schools around the country are currently closed under lockdown rules.

Israel said negotiating travel corridor with UK, Estonia for the vaccinated

Israel is negotiating a deal with the United Kingdom and Estonia on a travel corridor between the countries for the vaccinated, according to Army Radio.

The radio report says the talks have been ongoing for several days.

Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is closed until February 20 amid fears of the import of other coronavirus variants.

The arrival hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

 

Blinken says US returning to ‘flawed’ UN Human Rights Council

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Biden administration has decided to return to the UN Human Rights Council, reversing the policy of former president Donald Trump.

“The UN Human Rights Council is flawed and needs reform, but walking away won’t fix it. The best way to improve the Council, so it can achieve its potential, is through robust and principled U.S. leadership. Under President Biden, we are reengaging and ready to lead,” Blinken tweets.

Trump pulled out of the council in 2018 due to its disproportionate focus on Israel, which has received by far the largest number of critical council resolutions against any country, and because it failed to meet an extensive list of reforms demanded by then-US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.

The US charge d’affaires in Geneva, Mark Cassayre, earlier told an organizational meeting of the UN’s main human rights body that the United States will return as an observer. US diplomats say that step comes with an eye toward seeking election as a full member.

“The Biden administration believes in a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights and equality,” Cassayre told an organizational meeting of the council. “Effective use of multilateral tools is an important element of that vision.”

The decision is likely to draw criticism from conservative lawmakers and many in the pro-Israel community, who have derided the council and echoed Trump administration complaints that it was too quick to overlook abuses by autocratic regimes and governments — and even accept them as members.

South Africa mulls using unauthorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine

South Africa is considering giving a COVID-19 vaccine that is still in the testing phase to health workers, after suspending the rollout of another shot that preliminary data indicated is not effective at preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country.

The country is scrambling to come up with a new vaccination strategy after it halted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine — which is cheaper and easier to handle than others and which many had hoped would be crucial to combating the pandemic in developing countries. Among the possibilities being considered: mixing the AstraZeneca vaccine with another one, and giving Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which has not yet been authorized for use anywhere, to 100,000 health care workers while monitoring its efficacy against the variant.

This July 2020 photo provided by Johnson & Johnson shows a vial of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. (Johnson & Johnson via AP)

South Africa’s inoculation strategy is being watched globally because the variant first detected and now dominant here is spreading in more than 30 countries. Officials say this form of the virus is more contagious, and evidence is emerging that it may be more virulent; recent studies have also shown it can infect people who have survived the original form of the virus.

After a second surge, cases and deaths in South Africa have begun to fall recently, but it is still battling one of Africa’s most severe outbreaks, with more than 46,000 deaths. It is worried that another spike will come in May or June, when the Southern Hemisphere country heads into its winter.

So far, early results from trials of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine showed it offers less protection against the variant than the original disease but is still highly effective at preventing severe and fatal cases, according to Dr. Glenda Gray, director of the South Africa Medical Research Council, who led the South African part of the global trial. A Novavax vaccine candidate has shown similar results.

“We can’t wait. We already have good local data,” Gray says, stressing that clinical trials show that it is safe. She added that South Africa is making urgent plans to “roll it out and evaluate it in the field.”

“Our scientists must get together and quickly figure out what approach we’re going to use,” Health Minister Zweli Mhkize said Sunday night, announcing the suspension of the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is currently the only one available in South Africa. Deliveries of others, including the one made by Pfizer and BioNTech, are expected soon.

Israeli firm begins 2nd trial of coronavirus antibody drug

An Israeli company has begun its second trial of a coronavirus antibody drug, after a promising first trial.

The drug, manufactured from antibodies found in the plasma of recovered coronavirus patients and produced by the Kamada pharmaceutical firm, has been administered to 70 patients, according to Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s sister site.

 

1 in 100 ultra-Orthodox Israelis over 60 have died of COVID-19

Since the start of the pandemic, 1 of 100 Haredim over 60, and 1 in 140 Arab Israelis over 60, have died of COVID-19, according to an expert.

Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, says that among the general public — excluding Haredim and Arabs — 1 in 350 people over 60 have died of the disease.

“If the infection rates in the general public were like those in the Haredi community, it could have ended with 7,600 additional deaths, as compared to today, in the general public among those 60 and older,” he tweets.

He notes that 93 percent of coronavirus deaths in Israel were among those above 60.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral in Jerusalem, October 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Just 16% of Americans think democracy thriving in US — poll

Only a fragment of Americans believe democracy is thriving in the US, even as broad majorities agree that representative government is one of the country’s bedrock principles, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Just 16% of Americans say democracy is working well or extremely well, a pessimism that spans the political spectrum. Nearly half of Americans, 45%, think democracy isn’t functioning properly, while another 38% say it’s working only somewhat well.

The core elements of democratic government, including free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power, were put to a dire test by the baseless claims of election fraud advanced by former US president Donald Trump. Those assertions of fraud were a root cause of the deadly violence at the US Capitol last month, which damaged the country’s reputation as a model for democracy.

Trump will face an unprecedented second impeachment trial in the Senate this week for his role in sparking the violence. About half of Americans say the Senate should convict the Republican former president.

This combination of pictures shows US President Donald Trump in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 17, 2020, in Washington, DC. and US President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020. (JIM WATSON and Angela Weiss / AFP)

The poll’s findings are broadly consistent with how Americans graded democracy before the election. But there are signs that Trump’s attacks on the democratic process, including his repeated and discredited argument that the election was “stolen” because of voter irregularities, resonated with Republicans.

In October, about two-thirds of those who identify with the GOP, 68%, said democracy was working at least somewhat well. That figure plummeted to 36% in January. Democratic views whipsawed in the opposite direction, with 70% reporting democracy working at least somewhat well compared with 37% in the fall.

Overall, about two-thirds of Americans say Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, but only a third of Republicans hold that view.

COVID-19 has killed over 2.3 million worldwide, infected over 106 million

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 2,316,812 people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT on Monday.

At least 106,080,500 cases of coronavirus have been registered. Of these, at least 64,644,600 are now considered recovered.

These figures are based on daily tolls provided by health authorities in each country and exclude later re-evaluations by statistical organizations, as has happened in Russia, Spain and Britain.

On Sunday, 6,899 new deaths and 338,275 new cases were recorded worldwide.

Cemetery workers carry the remains of a person who died of COVID-19 to bury in Manaus, Amazonas state, Brazil, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Edmar Barros)

Based on latest reports, the countries with the most new deaths were the United States with 1,447 new deaths, followed by Brazil with 522 and Mexico with 414.

The United States is the worst-affected country with 463,470 deaths from 27,007,399 cases.

After the US, the hardest-hit countries are Brazil with 231,534 deaths from 9,524,640 cases, Mexico with 166,200 deaths from 1,932,145 cases, India with 155,080 deaths from 10,838,194 cases, and the United Kingdom with 112,465 deaths from 3,945,680 cases.

The country with the highest number of deaths compared to its population is Belgium with 185 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Slovenia with 174, United Kingdom 166, Czech Republic 162 and Italy 151.

Europe overall has 773,603 deaths from 34,583,333 cases, Latin America and the Caribbean 618,817 deaths from 19,571,506 infections, and the United States and Canada 484,230 deaths from 27,811,116 cases.

Asia has reported 244,713 deaths from 15,485,726 cases, the Middle East 99,391 deaths from 4,923,225 cases, Africa 95,113 deaths from 3,673,806 cases, and Oceania 945 deaths from 31,792 cases.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of tests conducted has greatly increased while testing and reporting techniques have improved, leading to a rise in reported cases.

However, the number of diagnosed cases is only a part of the real total number of infections as a significant number of less serious or asymptomatic cases always remain undetected.

As a result of corrections by national authorities or late publication of data, the figures updated over the past 24 hours may not correspond exactly to the previous day’s tallies.

UK lowers terror alert from ‘severe’ to ‘substantial’

Britain’s official terrorism threat level has been lowered from “severe” to “substantial” because the tempo of attacks in Europe has lessened.

The UK government says that the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center had lowered the level to the middle rung of its five-point scale, meaning an attack in Britain is likely. In November, the threat level was raised to severe, meaning an attack is highly likely, after deadly attacks in Austria and France.

“The decision to lower the threat level from severe to substantial is due to the significant reduction in the momentum of attacks in Europe since those seen between September and November 2020,” Home Secretary Priti Patel says.

She says that despite the lowered level, “terrorism remains one of the most direct and immediate risks to our national security.”

The center, which was established in 2003, sets the threat level based on intelligence about international terrorism at home and overseas.

The UK level has been at severe most of the time since 2014, briefly rising to “critical” amid violent attacks in 2017.

Clips by anti-vaxxer ‘rabbi to the celebrities’ said fueling vaccine distrust

The claims of an anti-vaccination popular rabbi are said to be fueling fears of the coronavirus shot in Israel, Channel 12 reports.

Rabbi Yuval Hacohen Asherov, who advises numerous Israeli celebrities, has released videos falsely claiming the vaccines cause infertility and damage to the immune system. His claims have been debunked by health experts.

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

He has no medical background.

Asherov has been fingered in media reports and by the Health Ministry for sowing distrust, amid a slowdown in demand for vaccines in Israel.

Ashrov, in a clip on his YouTube page, claims that the vaccine is unproven, says that the millions to whom it is now being given are human guinea pigs, and advises against being part of the experiment.

He claims: “The coronavirus vaccine has not undergone any of the routine scientific testing carried out on all other vaccines. That’s the first thing. And what’s happening now is that they’re trying it out on millions of people. This is the trial. Now is the trial. They’re injecting us with it. Well, not us, with God’s help. They’re injecting us with it, and they want to see what the results are.”

Rabbi Yuval HaCohen Asherov (YouTube screenshot)

Earlier on Channel 12, Tamila Nazarov, who runs a Facebook page called “Say no to the Green Passport,” protested that she faces “being treated like a second-class citizen” and being barred from malls, because she refuses to be vaccinated.

“I’m not preventing anyone else from being vaccinated. Whoever wants to get vaccinated should get vaccinated,” she says.

“We’re not coronavirus deniers and we’re not conspiracy theorists,” she says of her group. “It’s not legal for people to be threatened with dismissal from their jobs because they don’t want to get vaccinated. These are our rights.”

She objects to “being called murderers” after someone on her page posted, “If everyone who doesn’t intend to get vaccinated books an appointment for the vaccine and doesn’t turn up… we’ll get rid of the supplies (into the trash) pretty quickly.”

The Facebook page has been taken down for spreading disinformation.

Throngs of maskless fans celebrate Tampa’s Super Bowl win

So much for the mayor’s order requiring masks at Super Bowl parties. Throngs of mostly maskless fans take to the streets and pack sports bars as the clock inside Raymond James Stadium ticked down on a hometown Super Bowl win for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

To meet coronavirus protocols, the NFL capped the crowd at under 25,000 in a stadium that normally holds some 66,000 fans.

But outside the stadium, crowds of fans who weren’t wearing masks or practicing social distancing could be seen celebrating the Buccaneers’ 31-9 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.

In hopes of curbing so-called super-spreader events, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor had signed an executive order requiring people wear face coverings during the Super Bowl festivities, even while they’re outdoors.

“As I’ve told everybody we all know how to avoid COVID-19 and that’s by simply wearing a mask,” Castor tells WFLA. “I’ve been yelling for the Bucs all night long, you can do it with a mask on.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans celebrate their victory over the Kansas City Chiefs during Super Bowl LV in a parking lot near Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7, 2021. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

In revolt, malls and restaurants plan to reopen for vaccinated

Malls and restaurants are threatening to reopen on Thursday in defiance of government orders, according to a coalition representing the businesses.

They plan to allow vaccinated Israelis, those who have recovered from the virus, or those who have a negative test result from the past 72 hours to enter the premises, according to media reports. They also plan to allow children, who can’t be vaccinated, into the stores and restaurants.

The Israel Commerce Forum was established to unite national commerce, shopping mall, markets, and restaurant organizations in confronting government policy during the lockdown.

View of the closed-down stores in the Givatayim Mall during a nationwide lockdown, January 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu speaks to Putin on security coordination in Mideast

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the leaders discussing “regional issues,” his office says.

The conversation also focused on “the continued coordination between Israel and Russia on security developments in the region,” it says.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with a bouquet of flowers and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AFP)

Ashkenazi underlines Iran nuclear threat in ‘productive’ talk with Russian FM

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi says he had a “long and productive” conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

“Russia has an important role in the Middle East, particularly in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons as well as its entrenchment in the region,” he tweets.

Schools won’t be reopened before Wednesday, education minister says

Education Minister Yoav Gallant says schools won’t be reopened before Wednesday, according to Hebrew media reports.

The government has yet to make a decision on when to reopen the education system after over a month of lockdown.

But Gallant says that even if a decision is made to reopen at a meeting later tonight, the move won’t be implemented before Wednesday.

File: 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)

Tel Aviv hospital: Just 2% of hospitalized COVID patients were fully vaccinated

The Ichilov Medical Center says that since the start of January, just two percent of the coronavirus patients hospitalized in its wards — 8 out of 440 — had been fully vaccinated.

The difference is more starkly seen among serious and critical patients, with just 1 out of 68 critical patients having received both shots, and 3 out 200 among serious cases, according to the hospital.

Team member works in the coronavirus department of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, on January 1, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Greek PM leads high-level delegation to Israel to sign tourism agreement

Greece’s prime minister, foreign minister and tourism minister have arrived in Israel to sign a deal creating a travel corridor between the two countries for the vaccinated.

The delegation is greeted by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is set to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before announcing the deal later this evening, while the other Greek ministers will also sit down with their Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem.

The visit comes as Israel has stopped all commercial flights over fears of coronavirus mutations.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis meets with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Israel on February 8, 2021 (Miri Shimonovitz/Courtesy)

Netanyahu confirms schools won’t reopen Tuesday as meetings on issue continue

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirms schools won’t reopen tomorrow as consultations over the resumption of studies continues.

The decision is made in coordination with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Health Ministry experts, his office says.

First grade students on their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Judges in Netanyahu trial will consider delay after hearing on AG approval of probes

The judges in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial say they’ll consider whether to accept his request for a delay of the evidentiary stage of the trial only after another hearing on the attorney general’s approval of the criminal probes.

Netanyahu is seeking a 3- to 4-month postponement.

The defense is arguing that the lack of formal, written approval by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for the opening of the probe discredits the cases against the premier.

Pressed by the judges during the hearing earlier today, prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari acknowledged during the hearing that “it may have been better for the approvals to have been given in a different form, but that’s how things happened.” But, she added, “we said that from day one that things were written in an internal protocol documented in internal meetings. The attorney general confirms this.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021 (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Prosecutor in Lebanon’s port blast summons former army chief

The prosecutor investigating last year’s massive explosion at the port of Lebanon’s capital has summoned several people, including a former army commander, for questioning in the case, judicial officials say.

The questioning marks the resumption of Judge Fadi Sawwan’s investigation into the explosion after nearly a two-month pause following legal challenges to his authority. The summonses came as Lebanon began easing a strict 25-day nationwide lockdown that included a curfew to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

State-run National News Agency says Sawwan has set appointments to hear witnesses and others charged in the August 4 explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used mostly as a fertilizer.

A drone picture shows the destruction after an explosion at the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (Hussein Malla/AP)

The blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, killed 211 people, injured over 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital Beirut.

Among those summoned for questioning by Sawwan is former army commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji, judicial officials say. The officials, who speak on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, say Kahwaji will be questioned as a witness.

The names of the others to be questioned have not been released.

The army command, when Kahwaji was in charge, was one of the entities that exchanged letters with the customs department on what to do with the ammonium nitrate as it was kept in a warehouse at the port for six years until it blew up.

In April 2016, the army said in a letter that it didn’t need the material, adding that if a private explosive company in Lebanon also didn’t need it, the material should be exported at the expense of the ship owner who brought it to Lebanon.

The resumption of the investigation is likely to ease concerns by members of the public who feared the investigation might end, given Lebanon’s decades-long culture of impunity.

Nearly 30 people, most of them port and customs officials, have been arrested since the blast.

Iran unveils second homegrown virus vaccine project

Iran unveils its second homegrown coronavirus vaccine project, the day before the launch of a vaccination campaign to combat the Middle East’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak.

“We will start human tests in the coming days, or in a week at the latest,” Massoud Soleimani, a member of Iran’s national vaccine committee, tells journalists in Karaj near Tehran.

The vaccine, dubbed Razi Cov Pars, was developed at the Razi Vaccine and Serum Research Institute, which is linked to the agriculture ministry, Soleimani says.

At the start of Phase 1 of the clinical trials, “13 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 55” will receive a shot, he adds.

The unveiling comes the day before the launch Tuesday of a campaign to vaccinate Iran’s 80-million-plus population, starting with the Sputnik V jab, according to Health Minister Saeed Namaki.

The first doses of the Russian vaccine arrived on Thursday in Tehran, with two other shipments expected by February 18 and 28, according to Iranian authorities.

Israel, Greece reach deal to allow travel between countries for the vaccinated

Israel and Greece announce a deal to mutually recognize each others’ “green passports,” enabling the vaccinated to travel freely between the two countries.

The policy is “without any limitations, no self-isolation, nothing,” says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a press conference alongside his Greek counterpart.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis congratulates Netanyahu on Israel’s vaccination drive and says he looks forward to welcoming Israeli tourists to Greece when travel restrictions are lifted.

The tourism deal between Israel and Greece is signed at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Doctor in north: One-quarter of my COVID patients are under 50

Dr. Masad Barhoum, who heads the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, tells Army Radio that 25% of his COVID-19 patients are aged under 50.

He pleads for a further two weeks of tight lockdown, in which schools and stores remain closed, warning of a fourth wave of infection.

“Most of the patients have the British variant. This is the fear in reopening schools — infections and sickness among children and young people,” he says.

Barhoum warns that young people are underestimating the dangers of the virus and neglecting to get vaccinated.

“The target populations doesn’t want to get vaccinated. In addition, five weeks of a quasi-lockdown have left the public burnt out. People are no longer concerned by the price of the pandemic, they are repressing the number of the dead.”

PM predicts evidence stage of his trial will be delayed until after elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicts the Jerusalem District Court will postpone the evidentiary stage of his corruption trial until after the March 23 elections, calling the allegations against him “fabricated.”

“I think everyone knows the cases against me are fabricated. But we learned today that they’re not even completed fabrications. Lots of things are missing, even from the prosecution’s point of view,” he says at a press conference in Jerusalem alongside the Greek prime minister.

“It doesn’t seem to me that they’ll hurry [in court] to the evidentiary stage before the elections. In any case, that would be seen — even if that’s not the intention — as crude intervention in the elections,” he adds.

“If that happens, I’m telling you we’ll win [the elections] big time. But since we’re going to win [the elections] anyway, we don’t need to win that way. We don’t need it. [The timing of the next phase of the trial] needs to be handled with common sense, and I expect that will be the case.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his corruption trial hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/Pool)

Netanyahu says he expects Biden will call him soon: ‘Our alliance is strong’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he expects US President Joe Biden will soon pick up the phone to call him.

Netanyahu says Biden is phoning world leaders “as he sees fit,” and says they’ll likely speak when he starts reaching out to Middle Eastern leaders.

“Our alliance is strong,” says Netanyahu, while acknowledging some differences of opinion.

Netanyahu and Biden haven’t spoken since Biden took office.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and US Vice-President Joe Biden speak prior to a meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016.(AP/Michel Euler)

Gantz to Netanyahu: Publicize transcripts of government’s pandemic discussions

Defense Minister Benny Gantz urges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicize the transcripts of the government’s deliberations on the pandemic in both the cabinet and so-called coronavirus cabinet.

The minutes from the meetings are automatically classified for 30 years.

Most of the meetings, however, have been systematically leaked to Hebrew media.

“In the past few days, the public has been exposed to highly selective reports, through the media, of leaks of short comments from the cabinet discussions, which presented a partial and biased picture. These reports affect public trust in the government’s work, and since cabinet members decided to publicize these segments, the public should be allowed to be exposed to the debate in its entirety,” writes Gantz.

Moroccan singer receives death threats over song with Israeli artist

A Moroccan singer has been bombarded with death threats over her musical collaboration with Israeli artist Elkana Marziano, Channel 12 reports.

Sanaa Mohamed has “gone underground” and canceled an interview with the Israeli network amid the backlash, the report says, adding that she’s fine.

Marziano tells the station: “We talk a lot. I speak the language a little… It was a natural alliance. She’s in Morocco and I’m Moroccan. So doing this collaboration is exciting and the greatest gift I could get.”

Marziano says he’d like to perform for the Moroccan king.

Israel and Morocco reestablished diplomatic ties last month.

Netanyahu to meet with ministers on school reopenings

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with the ministers of defense, health, education, tourism, and top health and national security officials at 7:30 p.m. to hammer out a plan to reopen schools.

Netanyahu earlier said that schools will reopen only in low-infection areas, in the coming days.

Ashkenazi discusses ICC ruling, Iran with Blinken in 2nd phone call

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and thanks him for Washington’s public opposition to the International Criminal Court’s decision that it has jurisdiction to open a war crimes investigation against Israel.

Ashkenazi tweets: “I spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and thanked him for the administration’s public support of Israel in the face of the outrageous decision by judges of the ICC.”

Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi attends the annual Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I emphasized to the Secretary of State that the tribunal’s decision is fundamentally wrong, discriminatory, And that it jeopardizes the rare opportunity to promote peace in our region.”

He adds: “We also discussed joint efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons & its destabilizing regional activity. I thank Joe Biden & Sec of State Blinken for their true and deep commitment to Israel’s security and the strategic alliance between our countries.”

This is the second phone call between the top diplomats.

Then US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Gantz threatens to strike Lebanon if Hezbollah attacks Israel

Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatens to strike the country of Lebanon if its Hezbollah terror group launches an attack on Israel.

“If a [fighting] front breaks out in the north, the country of Lebanon will be the one to pay the heaviest of prices for the weapons that have been scattered in civilian population centers,” Gantz says.

The defense minister makes his remarks at a memorial ceremony for the 73 soldiers killed in the 1997 Helicopters Disaster, when two transport helicopters collided over northern Israel as they were full of soldiers heading to IDF positions in southern Lebanon.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen during a visit on the Israel-Lebanon border, northern Israel, on November 17, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Speaking at the same event, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi says the military is working constantly to target weapons that would be used against the Jewish state.

“Almost every week we operate in enemy territory in order to destroy weaponry that is directed at or is intended to harm the State of Israel and its citizens,” Kohavi says.

Gantz says the reason Lebanon will be targeted in any future conflict is because Hezbollah has established his weapons caches and launchpads within heavily populated civilian areas.

“We have clarified — again and again — that we will not allow Hezbollah and the Iranians to turn Lebanon into a terror state. Today, the IDF operates and will continue to operate along the border line and beyond it,” Gantz says.

“We will not hesitate to strike Iran’s efforts to rearm and entrench itself beyond our borders. And [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah knows well that his decision to build bunkers full of munitions and missiles and to position Hezbollah capabilities is a danger to himself and to the citizens of the state of Lebanon,” the defense minister says, calling on the Lebanese government to “take responsibility.”

Another 5,425 virus cases diagnosed since midnight

The Health Ministry records another 5,425 coronavirus cases since midnight, bringing the number of active cases to 68,044.

The number of serious cases stands at 1,097, including 307 on ventilators.

The death toll rises to 5,171, up 50 fatalities since this morning.

Shlomo Hillel, agent-turned-MK who facilitated Iraqi Jewish immigration, dies

Former Knesset speaker and minister Shlomo Hillel, who played a major role in facilitating the immigration of Jews from Iraq to Israel, has died at the age of 97.

A longtime ambassador, lawmaker and minister, the Iraqi-born Hillel was first voted into the Knesset in 1952 in Mapai. He held several cabinet portfolios during his political career, including internal affairs and police. From 1984 until 1988, he served as Knesset speaker. Hillel also served as Israel’s ambassador to several African countries in the 1960s.

In 1946-1951, Hillel worked as a Mossad attache for ”Aliyah Bet” in which Jews from Iraq illegally immigrated to Israel.

A plane filled with Iraqi Jews photographed on arrival at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv in early 1951. (Teddy Brauner, GPO)

No signs of torture on body of slain Hezbollah critic, his wife says

An independent autopsy reveals no signs of torture on the body of a well-known Lebanese publisher and vocal critic of the Shiite Hezbollah terror group shot dead in his car last week, his wife says.

Lokman Slim, a 58-year-old political activist and commentator, was found dead with six bullets in his body Thursday on a deserted rural road in the country’s south. He was visiting friends there and was due back in Beirut late Wednesday when his family reported him missing.

Lokman Slim in an interview with MTV Lebanon News on July 27, 2013. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Slim’s family has expressed skepticism that a national investigation would lead to those who killed him, citing a history of unresolved assassinations and political crimes in Lebanon. They hired a private forensic pathologist to carry out their own examination of Slim’s body.

Monika Borgmann, Slim’s German wife who also has Lebanese citizenship, says a private autopsy was necessary to get all the needed information.

There was speculation in Arab media that Slim may have been tortured before he was shot. The circumstances of his killing remain unclear and Borgmann says a full autopsy report is not yet ready.

Borgmann calls for an international investigation, saying she has suspicions but no proof that his killers were members or supporters of Hezbollah.

“It is very clear who his enemies are,” Borgmann tells The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “It is mainly Hezbollah, but for me it is not enough to say we know his enemies and that is it.”

“I really want to find out. I want to know why. I want to know who and I want an international investigation,” she says.

Body of Lokman Slim, a longtime Shiite political activist and researcher, who has been found dead in his car, lies on the ground as Lebanese security forces inspect the scene in Addoussieh village, in the southern province of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon, February 4, 2021. (AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

Just 60% of medical staff at Netanya hospital got virus vaccines

Under two-thirds of hospital staff at the Laniado Medical Center have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to Channel 12, which cites Health Ministry figures.

The Netanya hospital has seen 60 percent of its doctors and 60% of nursing staff get the shots, it says.

At Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, just 73% doctors, and 72% of nurses are inoculated.

The Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in the capital, by contrast, leads with 94% of doctors and 89% of nurses getting the vaccines.

The vaccines have been available for medical staff since late December, and those who are not vaccinated have declined the shots of their own accord.

Israel’s vaccine drive still slow, stumping health officials

Though all Israelis 16 and older are eligible to get vaccinated, the inoculation centers say few are showing up.

According to Channel 12, Israel’s health providers were ready for 200,000 vaccinations a day since last week. But demand dropped by 50 percent.

“We have no explanation for why people are not coming. We send out messages telling people to come and get vaccinated, but still the response is low,” a Clalit health official tells the network.

According to the station, 119,000 shots are administered on Monday, 53,000 of them the first dose.

An Israeli health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at Clalit Health Services, in a gymnasium in the central Israeli city of Hod Hasharon, on February 4, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Moshe Tsarfati, waiting at a vaccination center in Jerusalem for a vaccine, tells Channel 12: “It’s just shocking the flood of conspiracy theories online against vaccinating. It’s shocking and people are dying as a consequence.”

Israel is still leading the world in vaccination rates per capita, having given the first shot to over 3.5 million of its citizens and the second to 2.1 million.

According to OECD figures cited by Channel 12, Israel is also leading the world in infections, though it is the lowest for mortality (0.7%).

Netanyahu, Rivlin eulogize Shlomo Hillel, applaud his contributions to Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin pay tribute to Shlomo Hillel, the former Knesset speaker and minister who facilitated Jewish immigration to Israel from Iraq in the 1950s. Hillel died earlier today at 97.

Hillel “will always be remembered as a great lover of the land of Israel in its entirety. His praiseworthy actions for Israeli society will stand for generations,” says Netanyahu.

Rivlin also mourns Hillel, saying he “fought for the establishment of the State of Israel and its existence as a safe haven for the Jewish people.”

“As Knesset speaker, he worked to fortify the status and resilience of Israeli democracy and its legislature, and commanded us ‘to stand guard over democracy in the face of those who rise against it, and particularly those who rise up against it from the inside,'” adds Rivlin, who is also a former Knesset speaker.

Former minister Shlomo Hillel attends the Labor Party conference marking the party’s 50th anniversary in Tel Aviv, April 24, 2018.( Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

Trump committed ‘most grievous constitutional crime’ — Democratic prosecutors

Donald Trump committed the “most grievous constitutional crime” of any US president when he incited supporters to storm the Capitol last month, Democratic prosecutors say on the eve of his Senate impeachment trial.

In their final filing before the Senate’s 100 members sit in judgment of Trump, the nine House impeachment managers prosecuting the Republican leader also insist that the case should not be dismissed.

Trump’s lawyers pushed for a dismissal in a document released hours earlier, saying the Senate “lacks jurisdiction” to try Trump, who left office on January 20, because he is no longer a sitting president.

The Democratic managers directly reject the argument and say there is “overwhelming” evidence of impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors.

Rioters loyal to then-US president Donald Trump storm the US Capitol in Washington, January 6, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

“His incitement of insurrection against the United States government — which disrupted the peaceful transfer of power — is the most grievous constitutional crime ever committed by a president,” they say.

“The article of impeachment properly alleges an impeachable offense under the Constitution, is not subject to a motion to dismiss (and) is within the jurisdiction of the Senate sitting as a Court of Impeachment,” they write.

The five-page filing comes as Republicans prepare to circle the wagons around the former president and ensure that he is acquitted of the single article of impeachment for “incitement of insurrection.”

There is also mounting pressure for a rapid conclusion to the trial so that the Senate can turn to legislative priorities, including President Joe Biden’s massive coronavirus relief package.

Then US-president Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, in Washington, January 12, 2021, (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Body of antiquities scholar beheaded by IS in 2015 believed to be found

Syrian authorities may have found the body of a prominent antiquities scholar, who was publicly beheaded by the Islamic State terror group in the ancient town of Palmyra in 2015, according to the BBC.

The jihadists murdered 81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, after he refused to divulge where some of the town’s treasures had been hidden.

Two other bodies have been found near Palmyra by Syrian forces. All three are set to undergo DNA identification.

In this undated photo released August 18, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, one of Syria’s most prominent antiquities scholars, Khaled al-Asaad, speaks in Syria. Islamic State militants beheaded al-Asaad in the ancient town of Palmyra, Syria, then strapped his body to one of the town’s Roman columns, Syrian state media and an activist group said Wednesday. The killing of 81-year-old al-Asaad was the latest atrocity perpetrated by the militant group, which has captured a third of both Syria and Iraq. (SANA via AP)

Suspected car thieves break into air force base, setting off manhunt

Suspected car thieves have broken into the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim Air Base in the northern Negev desert after abandoning a car they had allegedly stolen from the nearby town of Dimona, prompting a massive manhunt, police say.

“Police forces, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces, are searching the area to find them,” police say.

Nevatim is the home base of the Israeli Air Force’s fleet of F-35 fight jets, the most significant aircraft in the military, as well as other advanced planes. These strategic assets have reportedly been secured.

It is not immediately clear how many suspects are involved, if it is one person or several people.

According to initial reports, the suspect or suspects drove through an open gate into the base, but punctured the tires on the security spikes on the road. They then abandoned the car and took off on foot deeper inside the base.

Military helicopters have been brought in to assist in the search, and the families of officers who live on the base have been warned to stay inside their homes.

Egypt opens Gaza border crossing ‘indefinitely’

Egypt opens its border with the Gaza Strip “indefinitely,” an Egyptian security source says, as it hosts inter-Palestinian reconciliation talks.

“This isn’t a routine or normal opening. This is the first time in years that the Rafah border crossing is opening indefinitely,” the source tells AFP.

“It used to open only three or four days at a time,” he notes.

Rafah is the only passage to the outside world for Gaza — a densely populated enclave of around two million Palestinians, half of whom live below the poverty line — that is not controlled by Israel.

Hamas security forces stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 9, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
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