The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they unfolded.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Iran’s move to enrich uranium to 20 percent purity in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal he opposed proves it is working toward nuclear weapons.
“Iran’s decision to continue violating its obligations, raise enrichment and promote industrial uranium enrichment capabilities underground cannot be explained in any way, other than a desire to continue realizing its goal of developing a military nuclear program,” the prime minister tweets.
“Israel will not allow Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons.”
A British judge rules that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should not be extradited to the United States to face espionage charges for publishing hundreds of thousands of secret documents online.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser says the 49-year-old Australian publisher is a suicide risk if he is sent into custody across the Atlantic.
“For this reason I have decided extradition would be oppressive by reason of mental harm and I order his discharge,” she adds.
Assange and his legal team have long argued that the protracted case, which has become a cause celebre for media freedom, was politically motivated.
The US has ramped up COVID-19 vaccinations in the past few days after a slower-than-expected start, bringing the number of shots dispensed to about 4 million, government health officials say.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, also says on ABC’s “This Week” that US President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to administer 100 million shots of the vaccine within his first 100 days in office is achievable.
And he rejects President Donald Trump’s false claim on Twitter that coronavirus deaths and cases in the US have been greatly exaggerated.
“All you need to do… is go into the trenches, go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths,” Fauci says on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Fauci says he has seen “some little glimmer of hope” after 1.5 million doses were administered in the previous 72 hours, or an average of about 500,000 per day, a marked increase in vaccinations. He says that brings the total to about 4 million.
The Israeli Employment Service says over 48,000 people have registered as unemployed since the beginning of Israel’s third national lockdown last week.
It said some 20 percent of that number did so for the first time, 25% for a second time and 55% for a third time since the pandemic began.
Service chief Rami Garor said some people were in a “revolving door” situation and would likely return to work once the lockdown ends, and that he was more troubled by “the future of those job seekers who have been [without work] for long months… their reintegration into the workforce will be very challenging and could take many months and even years after the crisis ends.”
The European Union warns that Iran’s move to enrich uranium to 20 percent would be a “considerable departure” from Tehran’s commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.
EU spokesman Peter Stano says Brussels will wait until a briefing from the director of the UN’s IAEA nuclear watchdog later in the day before deciding what action to take.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon will reportedly split from the Yesh Atid party ahead of the upcoming March election, preparing instead to run separately with his Telem party as the political sphere fills up with more and more parties.
Ya’alon and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid met yesterday to discuss the possibility of remaining together for the election but were unable to come to an agreement on the terms of their continued partnership, Channel 12 news reports.
According to the report, Ya’alon’s Telem is now set to run independently in the elections, unless it eventually teams up with another party to run as a joint slate.
In the previous election, Telem and Yesh Atid ran on a joint slate with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party under the label of Blue and White, but split from that alliance when Gantz decided to enter into a coalition with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The Shin Bet security service identifies the prime suspect in the murder of Esther Horgen in the northern West Bank last month as a 40-year-old Palestinian man from a nearby village.
According to the security service, Muhammad Mruh Kabha, from Tura al-Gharbiya near Jenin, is suspected of carrying out the deadly attack as a form of vengeance for the death of a security prisoner, Kamel Abu Waer, who died of cancer six weeks before.
Though Palestinian sources had previously identified Kabha as the prime suspect in the terror attack, his name was barred from publication under a court-issued gag order until now.
According to the Shin Bet, upon deciding to carry out a terror attack following Abu Waer’s death, Kabha began searching for a way to do so. He was aware of a gap in the fence in the Reihan forest outside the settlement of Tal Menashe because he had used it in the past to smuggle cigarettes into Israel, the security service says.
“After he noticed that there was only light traffic and that Israeli citizens pass through the area, he decided that this would be an appropriate area to carry out a terror attack,” the Shin Bet says in a statement.
According to the Shin Bet, after killing Horgen on December 20, Kabha fled the area and received help from friends and relatives to hide as Israeli security forces searched for him.
Nevertheless, he was arrested last week, along with four people who the Shin Bet says helped him hide. Palestinian media reported that two of those people were his wives. The security service says an indictment against Kabha is due to be handed down shortly.
— Judah Ari Gross
Kan News is apologizing after reporting that the man documented as the millionth Israeli to get the coronavirus vaccine, who had a photo op with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had in the past been convicted in a killing.
It says the report on Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab Jabarin was a mistake, despite using trusted sources. “We apologize from the bottom of our heart.”
Kan says Jabarin did serve 14 years for severe offenses, on which it does not elaborate.
Jabarin himself has admitted to serving 14 years in prison but had denied the Kan report that he had killed anyone.
Israel and Europe have begun using an Israeli-developed device that allows burns and wounds to be covered by a translucent “skin substitute” material, replacing bandages, negating the need for painful bandage changes, allowing more mobility and easier showering, the Guardian reports.
The medical gun, called “Spincare,” spins out the breathable web-like nano-fiber material which attaches to the wounded area. It also allows doctors to do examinations without contact with the sensitive spot.
Though the technique used by Spincare has existed for years, it has never before been available in a device so compact and mobile.
The Health Ministry releases details on its proposed “green passport” certificate that will allow increased activity in public for those who are not in danger of transmitting coronavirus.
It says the passport will be available for those who have been vaccinated, have recovered from COVID-19 or have been found negative in a recent PCR test. It will be available as a document as well as on a phone app.
Separately, the ministry will issue vaccination certificates for those who have received the two doses of the vaccine. They will be available online and printable for those who have been given the shot, including an English version for international travel. The certificates will be in effect a week after reception of the second dose, for a period of six months.
Seoul has dispatched its anti-piracy unit to the Gulf after Iran seized a South Korean-flagged oil tanker for breaking maritime environmental laws, the South Korean defense ministry says.
“The defense ministry immediately dispatched the Cheonghae unit to waters near the Strait of Hormuz shortly after receiving a report on the situation of Iran’s seizure of our commercial vessel,” the ministry says in a statement.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said it seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters “due to the repeated infringement of maritime environmental laws.”
It identified the ship as the Hankuk Chemi, which it said was carrying 7,200 tons of “oil chemical products.”
The arrested crew were from South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, the Guards said on its website Sepahnews, without giving further details.
In a meeting with justice officials, Benny Gantz, who is now serving as justice minister, says of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “I will not allow anyone to hurt the justice system, and I will certainly not agree that a person with indictments and who is accused of criminal wrongdoing will deal in judicial matters. He must remain out of such affairs.”
He adds “Our job is to continue to safeguard the justice system and rule of law in Israel.”
Scientists in South Africa are urgently testing to see if the vaccines for COVID-19 will be effective against the country’s variant virus.
The genomic studies come as Britain’s health minister, Matt Hancock, and other experts in the UK have said they worry that vaccines may not be effective against the South African variant.
“This is the most pressing question facing us right now,” said Dr. Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert who is working on the country’s genomic studies of the variant.
“We are urgently doing experiments in the laboratory to test the variant,” against the blood of people with antibodies and against the blood of people who have received vaccines, Lessells says.
The South African variant, 501.V2, is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in the country’s coastal areas. It is expected that the variant will quickly become dominant inland in Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, and the surrounding Gauteng province, he says.
The prime minister says he’ll call a cabinet meeting in the next 48 hours to decide on tightening the country’s coronavirus lockdown, as the nation’s infections continue their upward trend.
“With a short, tight lockdown we will save many lives, and be the first in the world to bring back the economy,” he says.
Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina have signed a surplus vote-sharing agreement ahead of the March election.
Vote-sharing agreements, which are widely used in Israeli elections, allow parties to ensure that extra votes that don’t add up to enough for another Knesset seat don’t go to waste. Instead a party is permitted to transfer these votes through a special agreement with another party, if they will help that party clinch another seat.
Agreements are usually signed between parties that are politically or ideologically close.
The UN nuclear watchdog confirms that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20 percent, a further step away from its commitments under the 2015 deal with world powers.
“Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent,” a statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says.
The European Commission defends its coronavirus vaccination strategy amid growing criticism in member states about the slow rollout of COVID-19 shots across the region of 450 million inhabitants.
Vaccination programs in the 27 nation-bloc have gotten off to a slow start and some EU members have been quick to blame the EU’s executive arm for a perceived failure of delivering the right amount of doses. In Finland, health authorities are reportedly unhappy that the country only received about 40,000 doses in December, instead of the 300,000 that were expected.
Facing a barrage of questions on vaccines during a news conference, EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer says the main problem with the deployment of vaccination programs “is an issue of production capacity, an issue that everybody is facing.”
“We have actually signed contracts that would allow member states to get access to 2 billion doses, largely enough to vaccinate the whole of the EU population,” he said.
Haaretz says Netanyahu is delaying convening ministers on new coronavirus restrictions because he is still trying to build a majority to support his bid to increase restrictions on the education system, which is currently opposed by Blue and White.
It says Netanyahu wants 7-10 days of tighter limitations, including closing down classroom instruction for grades 5-10 throughout the country. Currently those grades are studying in person in towns with low-to-moderate infection rates.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is reported to warn other ministers that if severe steps are not taken now, Israel will find itself in deep crisis “like Italy” in the near future.
Italy has seen cases spike to tens of thousands and deaths in the hundreds on a daily basis in recent months.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz says Jerusalem must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, after Tehran announced it was beginning to enrich uranium up to 20%, a relatively short step away from the 90% needed for nuclear weapons.
“Iran is a challenge to the world, to the region and to Israel. The defense establishment and all its organizations must continue monitoring this matter, and Israel cannot allow Iran to go nuclear and… advance its other ambitions,” Gantz says in a video statement released shortly before the weekly cabinet meeting.
“The entire world must step up its pressure, and we must ensure that the defense establishment has the resources needed so that we can be prepared to deal with Iran as necessary on all fronts. We are working with many partners on all fronts and we must continue this trend,” he adds.
— Judah Ari Gross
Iran’s army is set to hold a “joint and large-scale” drone drill with its different divisions primarily in central Iran tomorrow, the state news agency IRNA reports.
The two-day drill will involve “hundreds of operational drones of the army’s ground, air and navy forces in the general area of Semnan [province] and different parts” of the country, IRNA says.
The Iran-manufactured drones will undertake “combat, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare” in short and long distances flights, the agency adds.
IRNA says the army will also showcase its “achievements” regarding drone manufacture in an exhibition with the presence of high-ranking military commanders.
The Emirati government wholly denies an Israeli television report that its security services arrested a number of Iranian suspects who were planning to carry out a terror attack against Israeli citizens in the country.
“The Government of the United Arab Emirates has denied media reports circulating today regarding the foiling of an alleged attack in Dubai,” it says in a statement.
Yesterday night, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported that authorities in the United Arab Emirates had arrested a number of Iranians in Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the previous few days on suspicion that they planned to carry out terror attacks there, potentially against Israeli citizens visiting the country.
In its statement, the UAE calls the information in the report “rumors,” and says they are “wholly false,” while urging “accuracy in reporting.”
— Judah Ari Gross
Another vote surplus agreement is announced for the March election, this time between Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu.
The Kan broadcaster has retracted its claim and apologized for alleging on Sunday that the man highlighted as the millionth Israeli to receive the coronavirus vaccine, who was given his inoculation last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu standing alongside, served time for murder.
The Times of Israel also apologizes for citing the Kan claims in earlier versions of its article on the incident.
Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab Jabarin, 66, who got his shot on Friday, as Netanyahu was visiting a vaccination center in the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, served 14 years for robbery and weapons charges before his release in 1992.
Kan initially reported Sunday that Jabarin had been jailed for murder, and later said he had served time for manslaughter. On Monday, Kan retracted (Hebrew link) and apologized for its reports, saying they were erroneous.
Jabarin on Sunday acknowledged the lengthy jail term, but denied the reports of more serious crimes. “It’s a lie that I did time for murder. I was jailed for robbery, and for [charges related to] weapons,” he told Kan.
A California hospital is investigating if an inflatable costume worn by an emergency department employee on Christmas Day might have caused a coronavirus outbreak that infected dozens of people and killed one.
At least 44 staff members at Kaiser Permanente in San Jose tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week, and one died as a result of complications from the disease, according to a hospital spokesperson.
The hospital is now probing whether an air-powered Christmas tree costume, which had big eyes, a smile, and a bright red nose may have fanned the spread of virus-laden droplets.
“This was not a Kaiser Permanente sponsored or approved activity,” the spokesperson says.
“Any exposure, if it occurred, would have been completely innocent, and quite accidental, as the individual had no COVID symptoms and only sought to lift the spirits of those around them during what is a very stressful time.”
Ministers have been told failure to enact a tight lockdown in the coming days will cause 500-1,000 more deaths than if new restrictions are announced, Channel 13 News reports.
The report also says health officials fear Israel’s could see infections rocket to 10,000 a day within weeks.
The network says the prime minister supports a strict lockdown, saying other strategies have not been proven effective in lowering morbidity anywhere in the world.
Blue and White denies a report on Channel 12 News that leader Benny Gantz is considering joining his party with hard-right Yamina ahead of the March election.
The party says the report is “a lie” and that Gantz is not considering any such move. “Enough fabrication and lies. Politicians had better focus on responsibly managing the country, instead of spin.”
Former justice minister Avi Nissenkorn made a similar claim days ago.
Egyptian rapper and actor Mohamed Ramadan, blocked from work after the publication in November of photos of him posing with Israeli celebrities, is back on the job.
The actor publishes a picture on his Facebook page of himself on the set of a series titled “Musa,” slated to air during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, later this year.
An Egyptian court on Saturday dismissed a case against Ramadan that was aimed at preventing him from acting and singing in Egypt. The syndicate of Egyptian artists in December lifted a ban imposed on the rapper after suspending his membership in November. And the union of journalists also decided to rescind a decision to boycott all news linked to Ramadan due to the controversial photos.
In November, Israeli official Arab-language social media accounts posted two undated photos of Ramadan alongside singer Omer Adam and footballer Dia Saba, both Israeli citizens, on a rooftop in Dubai.
Channel 13 notes that the two surplus vote agreements signed today between Yamina and New Hope and between Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu mean that Israel’s largest party, Likud, does not have any obvious candidate to sign an agreement of its own with.
Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are likely to sign with each other, leaving only center-left parties and very small ones — neither of which is of much help to Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.
Saudi Arabia will reopen its land and air borders with Qatar beginning tonight, the Kuwaiti Foreign Ministry announces.
Riyadh and Doha have repeatedly clashed over the past few years, leading to a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar beginning in 2017.
Kuwait and the US have been mediating between the rival Gulf states in an effort to solve the strife between the Sunni Arab kingdoms.
Representatives of the Gulf states are set to meet tomorrow in a special summit to bridge the remaining gaps between Qatar and its neighbors.
There is no immediate comment from Saudi authorities.
— Aaron Boxerman
Israeli hospital chiefs are warning that they are seeing signs that Israel is entering the worst wave of the pandemic yet, with new cases flooding their facilities.
Prof. Pierre Singer, head of intensive care at Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva, tells Channel 13: “We are at the very beginning of a very serious wave.”
He says hospitals are seeing “younger cases. We have patients who are 48, 32, 55. I see whole families infected. People have not understood this disease is infectious, dangerous, it’s not over.”
Salman Zarka, director of Safed’s Ziv Medical Center, says the disease is “hitting again, more than in previous waves. Patients are coming to the hospital in very serious condition… We still have a few months in which we must keep the rules… it’s such a shame, so needless to get sick now, when we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Shlomi Codish, director of Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center, describes “a steep, sharp rise in the number of patients. The rise is steeper than during the second wave and we expect that if it continues this way we’ll be at a much more severe condition at the end of this wave.”
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