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Military task force warns that Israeli COVID variant could emerge

Report says mass rollout of vaccine amid ongoing outbreak may create ‘evolutionary pressure’ on the coronavirus

Israelis wearing face masks walk in downtown Jerusalem on January 21,  2021, during the third national coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis wearing face masks walk in downtown Jerusalem on January 21, 2021, during the third national coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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

Saudi TV reports missile or drone intercepted over Riyadh

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia says it intercepted an apparent missile or drone attack over its capital, Riyadh, amid the kingdom’s yearslong war against neighboring Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Social media users post video of what appears to be an explosion in the air over Riyadh. Saudi state TV quotes authorities in the kingdom acknowledging the interception.

Yahia Sarei, a military spokesman for the Houthis, says in a brief statement that the rebels had not carried out attacks on Saudi Arabia in the past 24 hours. The US Embassy in Riyadh issues a warning to Americans calling on them to “stay alert in case of additional future attacks.”

The Houthis have held Yemen’s capital and the north, where the majority of the population lives, since September 2014. Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a war against them in March 2015 in support of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

The war has been mired in a stalemate for years. Riyadh has been targeted in sporadic missile attacks in that time, while the Houthis also have launched missile and drone strikes. The Saudi-led coalition has faced widespread international criticism for airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians and hit non-military targets, including schools, hospitals and wedding parties.

Western experts, Saudi Arabia and the US say Iran has supplied arms, including ballistic missiles, to the Houthis. Iran denies that, although devices in the weapons link back to Tehran.

8,948 COVID cases, 67 more deaths confirmed in Israel this weekend

Health Ministry figures show 8,948 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed this weekend, including 7,316 yesterday, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 593,578.

The death toll stands at 4,326, with 54 fatalities recorded yesterday and another 13 since midnight.

The number of active cases fell to 76,783, with 1,171 people hospitalized in serious condition, including 335 on ventilators.

The ministry says 85,739 tests were performed yesterday, with 8.8% coming back positive.

It adds that 2,492,196 have received the first vaccine dose and 939,827 the second.

Heir of Italian king apologizes for monarchy’s role in Holocaust

ROME — A descendant of Italy’s wartime King Victor Emmanuel III has apologized to the country’s Jewish community for his ancestor’s role in dictator Mussolini’s racial laws and the Holocaust.

“I condemn the 1938 racial laws, all of whose weight I still feel on my shoulders to this day, and with me the whole royal house,” 48-year-old Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy says of his great-grandfather.

Victor Emmanuel III had put his signature to an “unacceptable document,” he adds in a letter posted to Facebook, “officially apologizing” in the name of his family.

Almost 8,000 Italian Jews were deported from the country and murdered in Nazi extermination camps, most of them in Auschwitz.

Giving a TV interview alongside the letter, Emanuele Filiberto also vaunts his family’s positive role in Italian unification and granting of equal rights to Jews from 1848.

Several Italian royals were themselves deported to Nazi concentration camps, he recalls.

After the war, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in May 1946 and died the following year in Egypt.

His son Humbert II reigned for only a month before leaving for Switzerland when Italians opted for a republican constitution in a referendum.

Parliament only ended a constitutional ban on the House of Savoy’s male heirs returning to Italy in 2002, after Emanuele Filiberto and his father Vittorio Emanuele swore loyalty to the republic.

ZAKA head says his father died of COVID, days after his mother

The head of the ZAKA emergency response says his father has died from COVID-19, just days after his mother died of the disease.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav’s brother also died from COVID-19 last month.

Meshi-Zahav, an ultra-Orthodox man, has pushed for greater vigilance toward the coronavirus in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. In an interview with The Times of Israel this week, he said that rabbis have “blood on their hands” for his mother’s death.

עלה המוות בחלוננושבר על שבר על שבר הושברנומכה אחר מכהאחי הצעיר משה ז"לאמי מורתי ז"לועכשיו אבי מורי ז"לכל זה בתוך…

Posted by ‎יהודה משי זהב – Yehuda Meshi zahav‎ on Saturday, January 23, 2021

Number arrested at pro-Navalny rallies in Russia passes 2,000

MOSCOW — More than 2,000 protesters were arrested at demonstrations held throughout Russia today, a monitoring group says, after jailed Kremlin-critic Alexei Navalny called for the mass anti-government rallies.

The OVD-Info monitor reports that police seized at least 2,131 demonstrators at the protests held in dozens of cities, with 795 arrests carried out in the capital Moscow.

British coronavirus strain found in 6 pregnant women hospitalized in serious condition

The Health Ministry reports the discovery of several cases of British coronavirus variant among pregnant women hospitalized in serious condition with COVID-19 complications.

The ministry says it took samples from 10 pregnant women and that of the seven samples they have so far completed sequencing, six were found to have the British strain.

“In light of the recent morbidity findings, pregnant women will be moved in up preference for receiving vaccines. Any pregnant woman who is interested can be vaccinated,” a ministry statement says.

Head of Hasidic dynasty calls for ultra-Orthodox schools to reopen Sunday

The head of the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty calls for ultra-Orthodox schools to reopen tomorrow, in defiance of lockdown measures.

“This is crucial for us,” Rabbi Yisroel Hager says in a message to his followers, according to the Walla news site.

Dozens of Haredi educational institutions are expected to open tomorrow, the news site says, despite lockdown rules prohibiting schools from operating.

Netanyahu said demanding immediate closure of airport over virus mutation fears

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding the immediate closure of Ben Gurion Airport due to concerns about coronavirus variants entering the country, according to Hebrew media reports.

Netanyahu is holding talks on the matter this evening with officials from the Health Ministry, Transportation Ministry and National Security Council.

Channel 13 says the Health Ministry backs the demand.

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu wants to halt all flights — even for those already vaccinated. Health Ministry officials were already recommending suspending all flights to Dubai.

Unnamed sources quoted by the network say the closure would remain in effect for several weeks and won’t be lifted when the current lockdown measures are eased, which they’re set to be on January 31.

More cautious officials in Health Ministry say the airport should reopen when at least 5 million Israelis are vaccinated, theChannel 12  report says.

TV: Mossad chief to meet Biden to lay out Israeli demands for rejoining Iran nuke deal

Prime Minister Netanyahu is dispatching Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to Washington to lay out Israel’s demands of Iran in any nuclear deal, Channel 12 news reports.

The network says Cohen is expected to travel to the US next month and will be the first senior Israeli official to meet new US President Joe Biden. He is also expected to meet with the head of the CIA.

Cohen and his team will present the Biden administration with all the information possessed by Israel on Iran’s rogue nuclear program, according to the report.

The TV report says Cohen will say that if the US rejoins the nuclear deal, Iran must halt enriching uranium; stop producing advanced centrifuges; cease supporting terror groups, foremost Lebanon’s Hezbollah; end its military presence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; stop terror activity against Israeli targets overseas; and grant full access to the IAEA on all aspects of its nuclear program.

Israel fears a deal under which Iran will be able to both continue enriching uranium and be granted financial relief that will enable the regime to repair the economy.

The report does not name sources, but cites “messages” conveyed between the Biden administration and Israel

TV: Health Ministry requesting use of advanced surveillance tools to track returning travelers

The Health Ministry is asking the government to approve the use advanced surveillance tools to track Israelis returning from overseas, according to Channel 13 news.

EU denounces Russia’s ‘disproportionate use of force’ against protesters

BRUSSELS — The European Union’s foreign policy chief expresses concern over Russia’s response to mass protests today, saying he deplores “widespread arrests” and the “disproportionate use of force.”

“Following unfolding events in #Russia with concern,” Josep Borrell writes on Twitter as tens of thousands protested in Russia in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

“I deplore widespread detentions, disproportionate use of force, cutting down internet and phone connections. We will discuss on Monday next steps with EU Foreign Ministers.”

Health minister angrily rejects TV claim that COVID death rate is a ‘failure’ compared to other Middle East countries

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein angrily denies a TV report suggesting Israel is faring poorly in terms of its per capita death toll from COVID-19.

In a segment this evening, Channel 13 news first cites figures from the Oxford-based Our World in Data showing Israel well ahead of the rest of the world in its per capita vaccination rate.

But the network then cites data from Worldometers showing Israel is 56th globally in terms of deaths per million people. It notes Israel’s death rate — 464 people per million — is higher than in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon and Egypt.

This figure, it says, represents Israel’s unacknowledged coronavirus “failure.”

“We’ve handed the pandemic efficiently,” Edelstein says in an interview with the network, dismissing the criticism.

He fumes at the comparison with Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East, saying Israel’s handling of the coronavirus should be assessed relative to Western countries like Britain, Belgium, Italy and the United States.

Wordometer data shows Belgium, the UK, Italy, the US, Spain, France, Sweden, Austria, Germany and Canada among the 55 countries worldwide with higher per capita death tolls.

“How dare you cite a ‘failure’ to handle coronavirus,” he fumes, claiming that only in Israel is such criticism made of the government. In other countries, he says, television stations lead their news broadcasts praising the Jewish state’s approach to the pandemic.

Military task force warns that Israeli coronavirus variant could emerge

A military-led task force is warning of the potential emergence of a mutated Israeli variant of the coronavirus resistant to vaccines.

In a report for the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, Military Intelligence recommends that due to fears over the possible development of an Israeli strain, those who have received vaccines or recovered from COVID-19 be tested for the coronavirus and be subject to quarantine requirements upon entering the country.

“The mass vaccine campaign taking place parallel to the active outbreak in Israel may lead to ‘evolutionary pressure’ on the virus,” the report says.

Government to approve Israel-Morocco normalization deal

The government will vote tomorrow on Israel’s recent agreement with Morocco to normalize diplomatic ties, according to the official agenda for tomorrow’s cabinet meeting, before the deal is approved by the Knesset.

Biden’s national security adviser holds first phone call with Israeli counterpart

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat speaks by phone with his new American counterpart Jake Sullivan, according to the Prime Minister’s Office, in the first confirmed high-level conservation between Israeli officials and the Biden administration.

“The two agreed to soon discuss many topics on the agenda, including the Iranian issue, regional matters and advancing the Abraham Accords,” a PMO statement says.

US State Department denounces Russia’s ‘harsh tactics’ against Navalny protesters

WASHINGTON — The US State Department rebukes Moscow over its use of “harsh tactics” against protesters demanding the release of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Police clashed violently with protesters in Moscow and arrested more than 2,500 in cities across the country today as Russians took to the streets to denounce Kremlin rule and demand the release of Navalny.

“The United States strongly condemns the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia,” State Department spokesman Ned Price says in a statement.

Navalny being taken into custody and the arrests of his supporters were “troubling indications of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms,” he adds.

“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny,” Price says, using an alternative spelling.

“We urge Russia to fully cooperate with the international community’s investigation into the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny and credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil.”

MK Sami Abou Shahadeh defeats incumbent Balad chief in leadership vote

MK Sami Abou Shahadeh wins the leadership primaries of the Arab nationalist Balad party, beating out incumbent leader Mtanes Shihadeh.

Balad is one of four factions that make up the Joint List, an alliance of majority-Arab parties.

PM to seek government approval to halt flights to and from Israel for 2 weeks

Prime Minister Netanyahu will seek government approval tomorrow for his plan to stop incoming and outgoing flights to Israel for two weeks, due to fears of coronavirus mutations.

A statement from his office says he and other officials reached an initial agreement this evening to halt all passenger flights and only allow people who get approval from a government committee to go to Ben Gurion Airport.

The statement says the restrictions will come into force once approved by the government, though it isn’t immediately clear if a majority of ministers will back them.

11 Iraqi paramilitary fighters killed in IS ambush

SAMARRA, Iraq — At least 11 fighters from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force were killed today in an ambush by the Islamic State jihadist group north of the capital, Hashed security sources said.

The jihadists used light weapons and the cover of darkness to target the Hashed east of Tikrit, the capital of Iraq’s Salahaddin province, two days after a twin suicide attack claimed by the group killed 32 people in Baghdad.

“IS launched an attack on the Hashed’s Brigade 22,” says one of the unit’s officers Abu Ali al-Maliki.

Maliki tells AFP the brigade commander was among those killed before reinforcements from the federal police came to the unit’s aid.

Hashed security sources says the total toll was 11 dead and 10 wounded.

There is no immediate claim of responsibility, but security sources interviewed by AFP blame IS.

Iraq declared the group territorially defeated in late 2017, but has continued to battle extremist sleeper cells, mostly in the country’s mountainous and desert areas.

Local troops have been aided by a US-led coalition, which first intervened to help fight IS in 2014 and continues to provide training, surveillance and air strikes in support of anti-jihadist operations.

The coalition has significantly drawn down its troop numbers over the past year, with the US shrinking its force from 5,200 to 2,500.

Settler arrested on suspicion of assaulting IDF soldier at West Bank outpost

Border Police arrest a settler in the northern West Bank on suspicion of assaulting an IDF soldier.

A police statement says officers were called to the Givat Ronen outpost after reports of rock-throwing. The officers used riot control means to disperse settlers throwing rocks, one of whom police say shoved a soldier at the scene.

The suspect, a 24-year-old Givat Ronen resident, was searched and found to be carrying a pistol, according to the statement.

Police also say that rocks were thrown at a police cruiser that came to pick up the suspect, breaking its windows.

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