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Health officials indicate pandemic rules to be in place over Purim holiday

Despite vaccination drive, gatherings and parties expected to be limited over festival in late February

Young Israeli children dressed up in costumes for the Jewish holiday of Purim at a school in northern Israel, on February 27, 2018.  (Anat Hermony/Flash90)
Young Israeli children dressed up in costumes for the Jewish holiday of Purim at a school in northern Israel, on February 27, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)

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

317 out of 715,000 vaccinated Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus

The Health Ministry says 317 Israelis out of 715,000 who were fully vaccinated have contracted COVID-19 over a week after receiving the second shot.

The number represents 0.04% of those vaccinated.

The ministry also says 16 of them have been hospitalized.

Iran says production of enriched uranium exceeds goals

Iran has exceeded 17 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium within a month’s time, state TV reports, moving its nuclear program closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels amid heightened tensions with the US.

Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, during a visit to the country’s Fordo nuclear facility, says in a televised speech that in less than a month, scientists passed 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium.

Uranium enriched to 20% is a short technical step away from weapons-grade 90% enrichment. Western nations have criticized Iran’s enrichment activity and called on Tehran to adhere to a 2015 nuclear accord.

Iran has said it would produce 120 kilograms (44 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium per year, or 12 kilograms per month on average, so 17 kilograms would exceed that timetable.

Roughly 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of 20% enriched uranium are needed to convert it into 25 kilograms of the 90% enriched needed for a nuclear weapon.

The development brings Iran closer to crossing the line between nuclear operations with a potential civilian use, such as enriching nuclear fuel for power-generating reactors, and nuclear-weapons work, something Tehran has long denied ever carrying out.

In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, spokesman of the organization Behrouz Kamalvandi, center, briefs the media while visiting Fordo nuclear site near Qom, south of Tehran, Iran, Nov. 9, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Coronavirus has killed at least 2.17 million worldwide, infected 100 million

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 2,176,000 people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT on Thursday.

At least 100,829,870 cases of coronavirus have been registered. Of these, at least 61,298,900 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 Wednesday, 16,585 new deaths and 584,147 new cases were recorded worldwide.

Based on latest reports, the countries with the most new deaths were the United States with 3,618 new deaths, followed by the United Kingdom with 1,725 and Mexico with 1,623.

The United States is the worst-affected country with 429,202 deaths from 25,598,359 cases.

Staff at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward on January 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After the US, the hardest-hit countries are Brazil with 220,161 deaths from 8,996,876 cases, India with 153,847 deaths from 10,701,193 cases, Mexico with 153,639 deaths from 1,806,849 cases, and the United Kingdom with 101,887 deaths from 3,715,054 cases.

The country with the highest number of deaths compared to its population is Belgium with 181 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Slovenia with 165, the United Kingdom 150, Czech Republic 149 and Italy 144.

Europe overall has 719,737 deaths from 32,732,486 cases, Latin America and the Caribbean 584,064 deaths from 18,497,558 infections, and the United States and Canada 448,711 deaths from 26,358,475 cases.

Asia has reported 238,186 deaths from 15,062,139 cases, the Middle East 96,371 deaths from 4,652,436 cases, Africa 87,986 deaths from 3,495,128 cases, and Oceania 945 deaths from 31,656 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.

1 killed, 220 injured in Lebanon riots over COVID restrictions

Violent confrontations between protesters and security forces in northern Lebanon left a 30-year-old man dead and more than 220 people injured, the state news agency says.

Frustrations boil over amid deteriorating living conditions and strict coronavirus lockdown measures that have exacerbated a severe economic and financial crisis, the worst in the Mediterranean country’s history.

The violence in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and the most impoverished, mark a serious escalation in protests that began Monday and continued for three straight days into Wednesday night.

Dozens of young men have been taking part in the nightly protests, throwing rocks at security forces and in some cases torching vehicles. On Wednesday, protesters repeatedly tried to break into the municipal building. Some lobbed hand grenades at security forces, who responded with water cannons, volleys of tear gas and finally, live ammunition.

Lebanese mourners attend the funeral of Omar Tayba, who died during clashes between anti-government protestors and security forces the previous night, in the northern port city of Tripoli on January 28, 2021 (Fathi AL-MASRI / AFP)

The National News Agency says 226 people were injured in the confrontations, including 26 police. One 30-year-old man died of his wounds, it says. The Red Cross says it transported 35 injured people to hospitals in the city.

Security forces are bringing reinforcements and putting up barbed wire around the municipal building, known as the Serail. Two torched cars stand nearby. Shops and cafes are open and traffic appears normal on the streets in clear defiance of the government’s lockdown measures.

Knesset speaker proposes compromise to resolve fight over lockdown, fines

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) suggests extending the nationwide lockdown by a single day, until Monday, to buy the government more time to pass a law hiking fines against violators.

Blue and White is refusing to extend the nationwide closure until the law raising the penalties is passed by the Knesset.

Then-tourism minister Yariv Levin at the Kfar Maccabia Hotel in Ramat Gan, on October 27, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Levin criticizes Blue and White’s conduct but offers a compromise.

“They [Blue and White] fear we’ll trick them and the [fines] law won’t be brought to a vote. Therefore, I suggested we try to reach an understanding, since the lockdown ends on Sunday. The government should extend the lockdown by one day and on Monday we will gather to pass the law,” he says, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Levin says the government would then convene again to extend the lockdown further.

The move to raise the fines is opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Many institutions in Haredi society have continued to operate throughout the lockdown, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

Blue and White rejects Likud’s compromise on fines law

Blue and White is rejecting Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin’s proposed compromise to end political disagreements over the lockdown and law hiking fines against violators.

Benny Gantz’s party says there will be “no compromise” on the issue.

“If there is no lockdown for all, there will be no lockdown at all,” it says, referring to uneven enforcement of the rules among different Israeli communities.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians skip committee meetings on fines law

Lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties are skipping a meeting in the Knesset House Committee on the legislation that raises fines for lockdown violators, in protest of the bill.

They will also skip the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting later today in which the legislation will be finalized for Knesset plenary votes, reports say.

UN Palestinian agency hopes Biden resumes aid, says it won’t cover shortfall

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees expresses hope that the United States will resume its funding, but says it still would not be enough to cover a shortfall.

Under former president Donald Trump, the United States halted its support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA.

On Tuesday, Washington’s interim UN envoy Richard Mills said President Joe Biden intends to “restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people,” without mentioning UNRWA.

“We welcome the Biden administration’s decision to restore assistance to Palestinians and look forward to continuing conversation with them about resumption of aid to UNRWA,” says the UN agency’s spokeswoman, Tamara Alrifai.

Alrifai says the “2021 financial year looks very difficult.”

Palestinian students affiliated with the United Nations “UNRWA” wear face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on November 25, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“While the overall budget will remain at US $806 million, same as 2020, the income forecast in the best estimates will lead to an expected shortfall equivalent to three months of operations.

“We therefore expect a cashflow crisis as of March this year. More broadly, the expected deficit would be untenable and could lead to a financial collapse of the agency,” Alrifai says.

“Our financial forecast takes into consideration the expected re-engagement of the US administration, so we predict a bit more income than 2020 but this slightly improved income will not cover the huge liabilities that UNRWA already has.”

The agency had entered 2021 with liabilities of $75 million from the last financial year, and its annual deficit was expected to reach $200 million in the current year, she adds.

The Trump administration, along with Israel, accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jerusalem criticizes the agency’s practice of extending refugee status to millions of descendants, rather than only to the original refugees as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

Russian court upholds detention of Kremlin critic Navalny

A Russian court upholds a decision to detain top opposition leader Alexei Navalny for 30 days after he returned to Moscow this month following a near-fatal poisoning.

Judge Musa Musayev of the Moscow Regional Court says a previous ruling by the Khimki City Court should “remain unchanged,” an AFP journalist reports.

Navalny during the hearing slams what he described as the “lawlessness” of the process.

“This is blatant lawlessness to intimidate myself and other people,” Navalny tells the court by video link.

Russian protesters march in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in downtown Moscow on January 23, 2021. The placard with an image of the Kremlin critic reads “Freedom to Navalny!” (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

Police detained President Vladimir Putin’s top domestic critic in a Moscow airport after he returned to Russia on January 17 from Germany.

He had been recovering there from a near-fatal poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent in an attack he blamed on Russian security services and Putin.

Knesset panel approves fines hike for final plenum votes

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice committee approves a bill doubling fines for those who flout lockdown regulation for its final votes in the plenum.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers skip the committee vote in protest, including committee chair MK Yaakov Asher.

The plenum votes will likely be held on Monday.

The legislation is approved in its original version.

The Blue and White party is refusing to extend the nationwide lockdown until the law passes. The lockdown expires Sunday night.

Bus driver stabbed in Lod; attacker flees

A bus driver has been stabbed in the central city of Lod, apparently by a passenger.

He is being treated for moderate wounds.

Police are searching for the assailant, who fled the scene.

German vaccine commission: AstraZeneca vaccine should only be used on under 65s

Germany’s vaccine commission STIKO says it is recommending the use of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine only for under-65-year-olds, due to insufficient data on its effectiveness on older people.

The panel of scientific experts says the vaccine, jointly developed with the University of Oxford, should only be used for “persons aged 18 to 65 years old based on available data.”

“There is currently insufficient data to assess the efficacy of the vaccine for persons aged 65 years and older,” it says.

88-year-old Trevor Cowlett receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster, at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, on the first day of rolling out the newly approved jab. (Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP)

Jordan presses Israel to vaccinate Palestinians

Jordan’s King Abdullah II says Israel’s failure to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza Strip is counterproductive for the Jewish state.

“The Israelis have had a very successful rollout of the vaccine; however, the Palestinians have not,” Abdullah tells the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“You cannot vaccinate one part of your society and not the other and think that you are going to be safe,” he says via videoconference. “That is the number one lesson that COVID-19 taught us.”

Israel launched its vaccination drive a month ago. Since then nearly 2.8 million of its nine-million population have received a first shot, with half of that number already getting the second dose too.

Earlier this month the Palestine Liberation Organization urged the international community “to hold Israel to account” and ensure that it provides vaccines to all Palestinians living under Israeli control.

Abdullah says that the novel coronavirus “does not care about borders, the rich or the poor or whoever.”

“We have got to look at the practicalities and the challenges that are ahead of us, to be able to communicate with each other and realize that we are one world, one small village,” he says.

Israel says that under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are responsible for immunizations in the West Bank. Gaza, meanwhile, is controlled by the Hamas terror group.

2 women who recently gave birth in critical condition with COVID-19

Two women who recently gave birth are in critical condition after contracting COVID-19.

The women, who are hospitalized at the Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva, have been attached to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine, which assists their heart and lungs, the hospital says.

Both were hospitalized 10 days ago. Their condition is described as “very serious but stable.”

Lithuanian lawmaker says Jews among perpetrators of Holocaust

In an unusual move, the US ambassador to Lithuania accuses a local senior lawmaker of distorting the history of the Holocaust and blaming Jews for it.

Robert Gilchrist, who took up the post in February last year, made the accusation following a speech Wednesday by Valdas Rakutis, a member of the Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament, and chairman of its commission on historical memory.

“There was no shortage of Holocaust perpetrators among the Jews themselves, especially in the ghetto self-government structures,” Rakutis says in the speech, which took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “We need to name these people out loud and try not to have people like them again.”

Rakutis also says that two wartime collaborators with Nazi Germany, Kazys Škirpa and Jonas Noreika, were not to blame for the fact that more than 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered, mostly by locals and often by followers of the two leaders.

The speech prompts rare recrimination from the US ambassador, as well as from advocates who monitor anti-Semitism in the region.

“It is shocking that on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, of all days, a member of Seimas should espouse distortions regarding Holocaust collaborators in Lithuania and shamefully seek to accuse Jews of being the perpetrators,” Gilchrist writes on Twitter under the official account for the US Embassy in Vilnius.

Efraim Zuroff, director of Eastern European affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a statement says: “Rakutis has clearly demonstrated that he is totally unsuited to head the Seimas committee on national memory, unless lying about Lithuanian history is the main requirement for the post.”

Valdas Rakutis walks into the Seimas building in Vilnius, Lithuania on Nov. 24, 2020. (Wikimedia Commons/Sofija Vytautaitė via JTA)

Hezbollah-linked hackers accused of breaching 250 companies

An Israeli cybersecurity firm says a Hezbollah-linked network, Lebanese Cedar APT, has breached 250 companies worldwide, including in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States.

“Our report reveals a partial list of the companies that the group has attacked. The target companies are from many countries including: The United States, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. We assess that there are many more companies that have been hacked and that valuable information was stolen from these companies over periods of months and years,” says Clearsky Cyber Security in a report.

“Most of the victims we identified are from the Telecommunications and IT industry, Hosting providers, Communications companies and Managed Hosting and Applications companies,” it says.

The hackers may be affiliated with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, the report says. “We endorse Check Point’s strong case attributing Lebanese Cedar APT to the Lebanese government or a political group in Lebanon. Moreover, there are several indications that link Lebanese Cedar APT to the Hezbollah Cyber Unit.”

Democratic congressman deletes tweet urging Israel to vaccinate Palestinians

US Congressman Jamaal Bowman (Democrat of New York) has deleted a tweet from Sunday in which he called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians alike are vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Bowman had joined four other Congressional Democrats who had blasted Israel’s policy of not inoculating Palestinians. They cited an international law statute, which requires occupying powers to cover the medical needs of inhabitants of the territories it occupies.

Under the terms of the 1995 Oslo Accords though, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, while both sides are to work together to combat epidemics.

Several prominent US Jewish leaders panned Bowman for his statement. His office did not respond to a query into why he deleted the tweet, which closed with “this cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end.”

Remains of missing Jerusalem man found, 3 years later

Police have found the body of Jerusalem resident Yaakov Diskin, 32, who went missing in September 2017.

Diskin’s remains were discovered in a cave in the Lifta ancient village at the entrance to Jerusalem by a hiker.

His family has been notified.

Netanyahu says he’ll consider building international airport in Negev

During a tour of southern Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he’ll reconsider a plan to build an international airport in the Negev Desert.

He says he’ll appoint a panel of experts to evaluate the issue, according to a Likud spokesperson.

Netanyahu says US freeze of F-35 sale to UAE won’t affect normalization

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly says the Biden administration’s decision to temporarily suspend its sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates — a deal clinched after the Gulf state agreed to forge ties with Israel — won’t affect relations between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi.

“It won’t affect it, we’ve passed the point of no return,” says Netanyahu, according to Hebrew media reports.

Two US Navy F-35C Lightning II jets fly in formation during an exercise out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, November 16, 2018. (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

Digging his heels in, Gantz says fines law must be advanced tonight

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is insisting the Knesset plenum convene tonight to pass the law raising fines for lockdown violators.

He says he’ll continue to oppose extending the lockdown — which is set to expire Sunday — until the law advances.

British man arrested after suspicious package sent to AstraZeneca plant

British police arrest a man after a suspect package was sent to a COVID-19 vaccination production site in Wales, leading to the deployment of a bomb disposal team.

Production was halted and staff were evacuated from the Wockhardt site in Wrexham, north Wales, following the discovery on Wednesday.

Kent Police in southeast England say they have detained a 53-year-old local man on suspicion of sending the package.

The package was made safe and employees were allowed back into the building.

“This temporary suspension of manufacturing has in no way affected our production schedule and we are grateful to the authorities and experts for their swift response and resolution of the incident,” a spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

The Wockhardt plant employs around 400 people. The defense ministry said an explosive disposal unit was called out just after 1130 GMT on Wednesday to assist at the scene.

Wockhardt provides the final stage of services in preparing the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the British drugs group AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Pandemic caused worst year for US economy since 1946

The United States sees its sharpest contraction in growth since 1946 as the coronavirus pandemic hammered the economy last year, but while the country may be set for a recovery, it hasn’t arrived yet.

The Commerce Department reports the world’s largest economy shrunk by 3.5 percent in 2020 after COVID-19 rearranged daily life, forcing many businesses to shut down or change their operations while laying off workers in droves.

Those mass layoffs, which began in March as the pandemic intensified, continue to take a toll, with the Labor Department reporting nearly 1.3 million new claims for unemployment benefits filed last week.

Illustrative: Medical personnel move a deceased patient to a refrigerated truck serving as a makeshift morgue at Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, April 9, 2020. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

The data underscores the job awaiting President Joe Biden, who took office just over a week ago promising to get the country back on track, and who has proposed spending $1.9 trillion in an initial salvo against the twin economic and health crises.

But by this point, analysts agree there’s only so much the government can do to support the economy, which won’t be back to normal until the raging virus is done away with or has at least been brought to manageable levels.

AG says legal system victim of misinformation and ‘blood libels’

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warns of attempts by government officials to discredit law enforcement, likening some of the attacks on the justice system to a “blood libel.”

The legal system “encounters attempts to harm the law enforcement system, while spreading false information that sometimes is tantamount to a blood libel,” says Mandelblit.

According to Hebrew media reports, he specifically refers to ministers’ attempts to blame him for a lack of coronavirus testing at the airport over legal reasons, as well as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s initial refusal to vaccinate prisoners.

Facebook review board in first action overturns four content-removal rulings

Facebook’s new oversight board says in its first rulings that in four of five cases it had considered, the company was wrong to remove controversial posts from the platform.

These did not include Donald Trump’s indefinite suspension from Facebook and Instagram after the storming of the US Capitol, but the board said last week it agreed to consider that case.

The Oversight Board says it is overturning the platform’s ruling in four of the five cases it looked at and ordering that the disputed content be restored to Facebook.

These four included, for example, a post that asserted that France lacked a health care strategy and included claims that a cure for COVID-19 exists.

This post was initially removed on grounds that it contributed to “risk of imminent … physical harm.” But the review board says Facebook’s rule on misinformation and imminent harm was “inappropriately vague.”

Another case involved nudity. An Instagram user in Brazil had posted pictures of women’s nipples as part of a breast cancer awareness message. It was removed, but the board says these five photos should be allowed in light of Facebook’s own policy exception for breast cancer awareness.

A demonstrator joins others outside Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s home in San Francisco to protest Facebook’s alleged spreading of disinformation, November 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

The board says that since it started accepting cases in October of last year, more than 150,000 cases have been appealed to the panel.

“As we cannot hear every appeal, we are prioritizing cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Facebook’s policies,” the board says in a statement.

Facebook’s oversight board is tasked with making final decisions on appeals regarding what is removed or allowed to remain on the world’s biggest social network.

It is considering cases involving Nazi propaganda, hate speech, nudity, pandemic misinformation, and dangerous individuals or organizations.

Lockdown extension up in the air amid dispute over enforcement

Though the cabinet was set to meet tonight to approve an extension of the nationwide lockdown, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s ultimatum hinging the passage of a law hiking fines to the extension means that meeting likely won’t happen, Channel 12 reports.

Instead, the network reports, the lockdown rules may expire on Sunday night, only to be reintroduced on Monday night, after the law is passed in the Knesset.

Health Ministry recommends pregnant women in 1st trimester avoid virus vaccine

The Health Ministry recommends that women in their first trimester of pregnancy not be vaccinated against COVID-19.

While the ministry stresses that the shot is safe for all pregnant women, it says the recommendation is aimed at eliminating “any suspected connection, even an incidental one” between the vaccine and birth defects or miscarriages.

Women in their second and third trimesters should get the vaccine, as well as nursing mothers, the ministry says.

In addition, women who received the first dose and then discovered they were pregnant should still get the second shot three weeks later, it says.

New US defense secretary speaks to Gantz, vows to uphold Israel’s military edge

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks with the new US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

According to a statement from Gantz’s office, during the conversation, Austin pledged to uphold Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.

“The defense minister raised before the US defense secretary the need to deal with Iran’s aggression and to ensure that an effective policy is being formulated that will safeguard regional stability,” Gantz’s office says.

Fatah deputy chief visits family of would-be stabber

Fatah deputy chief Mahmoud al-Aloul visits the family of Atallah Rayyan, a Palestinian teenager who allegedly tried to stab an Israeli soldier on Tuesday in an attempted terror attack.

The Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday that Israeli soldiers shot Rayyan in the northern West Bank. He had attempted to stab a 22-year-old soldier several times before her commander shot him dead, according to the IDF.

Rayyan’s family denied the IDF’s account in statements to Palestinian media, accusing the Israeli military of lying about the circumstances of their son’s death.

Al-Aloul’s visit, which was done “in the name of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement,” sought to pay his condolences to Rayyan’s family, according to the PA’s official news agency WAFA.

UAE said angered by Israel health official blaming virus surge on Dubai travel

The United Arab Emirates has expressed its frustration with Israel after a top health official blamed a sharp rise in coronavirus cases on Israelis returning from Dubai, according to Hebrew media reports.

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office apologized for Sharon Alroy-Preis’ comments after being contacted by Emirati officials, the reports by the Walla and Ynet news sites say.

Alroy-Preis, head of the Health Ministry’s public health department, is said to have told hospital chiefs that “In two weeks of peace [with the UAE] more people died than in 70 years of war.” Israel and the UAE were never at war, and Channel 13 notes her comment may have been made half-jokingly. The network said that from the beginning of December, 906 Israelis who returned from the UAE were diagnosed with coronavirus, leading to a total of 4,050 cases, including many cases of the more infectious UK variant.

A passenger wearing a mask due to the coronavirus pandemic passes through a temperature screening at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 10, 2020 (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell, File)

Israel to give Palestinians vaccines for 1,000 medical workers — report

Israel will provide vaccines for around 1,000 Palestinian healthcare workers in the West Bank, according to the Walla news site.

The report cites military sources, who say the shots will be transferred as soon as possible, in two shipments.

The Palestinians have yet to formally ask Israel to inoculate wide swathes of their population, although a previous request by Ramallah for 10,000 vaccines for frontline healthcare workers was reportedly rejected by Israel.

Ramallah has also sent mixed signals on whether Israel ought to provide vaccinations for the Palestinians. Palestinian health officials have said that they are not planning to receive any shots from Israel, and have vigorously denied reports that Israel transferred 200 doses of coronavirus vaccine as a humanitarian gesture.

Israeli officials have responded by saying that the Palestinians are uresponsible for vaccinating their own people according to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the two sides, although some have said that Israel will consider providing immunizations once all Israelis are vaccinated.

Health officials: Pandemic restrictions to be in place for Purim holiday

The Purim holiday in late February will be held under pandemic restrictions, despite the vaccination campaign, health officials tell Channel 12.

Though the specific rules will be based on infection rates at the time, officials indicate parties and mass gatherings will be banned.

Israelis enjoy a Purim parade, the largest in the country, in the city of Holon, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, March 21, 2019. (Flash90)

Lapid chides IDF chief for threat to Iran’s nuclear program

Knesset opposition leader Yair Lapid criticizes IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi for his public threat to strike Iran’s nuclear program, warning it could anger the Biden administration.

“In the first week of a new administration, this kind of discussion should not be conducted in front of cameras, but it should be conducted,” he says. “After Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, Israel was removed from the table. Public statements that anger a new administration are not the way to get back to the table.”

Lapid makes the comments during an online conference of the INSS think tank.

Lt. Gen. Kohavi, in a speech earlier this week, said he had ordered the military to draw up plans to thwart Tehran’s nuclear program.

Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, January 5, 2021. (Elad Guttman)

Iraqi PM says top Islamic State figure in country has been killed

Iraq’s premier announces the military has killed a man identified as the top Islamic State group figure in the country, a week after an IS attack in Baghdad killed more than 30 people.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi says IS’s Iraq “wali,” or governor, Abu Yasser al-Issawi, was killed in an “intelligence-led operation” by Iraqi security forces.

“We promised and fulfilled. I gave my word to pursue Daesh (IS) terrorists, we gave them a thundering response,” Kadhemi writes on Twitter.

Iraq declared IS territorially defeated in late 2017 after a three-year fight aided by US-led coalition airstrikes and military advisors.

Security forces work at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, January 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Since then, IS attacks in urban areas have dramatically dropped, but Iraqi troops have continued to battle sleeper cells in the country’s mountainous and desert areas.

Issawi, born Jabbar al-Issawi in Iraq’s western region of Fallujah, had been identified last year by top jihadism experts as the country’s most senior IS official.

He rose to that rank after fighting with the jihadist faction in both Iraq and neighboring Syria, senior security sources tell AFP.

Issawi was killed on Wednesday in a remote swathe of Iraq’s northern Kirkuk province in an operation backed by the US-led coalition, the sources add.

“The coalition carried out five air raids, killing at least 10 jihadists,” one of the sources says.

A coalition spokesman did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.

The coalition has continued to provide training, surveillance and air support but has drawn down its numbers as Iraqi forces take the lead on operations.

On January 21, two suicide bombers targeted a packed open-air market in Baghdad, killing at least 32 people and wounding more than 100 others.

The attack was later claimed by IS.

Iraqi and Western military sources described “gaps” in the security infrastructure that may have been exploited by the attackers.

120 interfaith leaders in New York call for vaccination of prisoners

Over 120 interfaith religious leaders in New York call on NY Governor Andrew Cuomo to vaccinate prisoners against COVID-19.

Following a New York Times report revealing that prisons had been left out of the initial stages of Cuomo’s vaccination plan, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders sign onto a letter calling on him to ensure that incarcerated individuals are included in the current phase of the inoculation rollout.

The letter, co-sponsored by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day, with the support of Center for Community Alternatives and the New York Jewish Agenda, highlights Cuomo’s responsibility to prevent outbreaks in the New York prison system, where dozens of the 50,000 incarcerated have succumbed to the coronavirus.

“We are compelled to speak publicly today because to deny access to the vaccine to this population would be a grave public health risk and a violation of the core value of human dignity that lies at the heart of all our faith traditions,” the faith leaders write to Cuomo.

Iran plans to install 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz in 3 months

A spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) says the Islamic Republic seeks to install 1,000 new centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear plant within three months, the semi-official Fars News Agency reports.

The comments by Behrouz Kamalvandi come after Iran announces it exceeded its monthly target on uranium enrichment.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

UK announces UAE travel ban over virus spike

Britain announces an outright travel ban on non-citizens arriving from the United Arab Emirates and severe quarantine measures for citizens coming in from there, to stem coronavirus cases, hitting Dubai holidaymakers and expatriates.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps says the UAE has been added to the government’s “red list” along with Burundi and Rwanda from 1.00 p.m. (1300GMT) on Friday.

Any British or Irish citizens and third-country nationals with residence rights returning from the Gulf state will be required to isolate at home, or in a hotel for 10 days.

Everyone else is banned completely, and the government also announced that direct flights between Britain and the UAE were no longer allowed.

“The decision to ban travel from these destinations follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa, that may have spread to other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Burundi and Rwanda,” says a government spokeswoman.

The state is home to thousands of British expats and has been a popular destination for social media influencers during the pandemic, who have raised ire by posting their holiday pictures online having traveled under the guise of work.

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