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

Health official fear testing influx could cause crucial delay in life-saving pills

Health Ministry officials fear the pressure on the country’s testing system could lead to slow results for at-risk individuals who could benefit from taking anti-COVID pill Paxlovid, Channel 12 reports.

Israel has started distributing the pills in recent days to patients who are at greater risk from the disease, as it is believed to be highly effective at preventing serious illness. But the pill must be taken within the first five days of symptoms appearing in order to be effective.

According to Channel 12, with results now taking up to two days amid a huge influx of cases, officials are now trying to prioritize people over 60 for test results, fearing they could miss the pill window.

IDF says it downed Hezbollah drone as it crossed border into Israel

The IDF says it downed a drone belonging to the Hezbollah terror group after it crossed into Israeli airspace from Lebanon.

The military says the small quadcopter was being monitored and was brought down when it crossed the border.

The military does not comment on what the drone’s purpose may have been.

Lapid at Yesh Atid confab: ‘We won’t stop until we’re the biggest party in Israel’

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tells a conference of his Yesh Atid party: “We won’t stop until we’re the biggest party in Israel.”

“Yesh Atid is Israel’s ruling party. It is the largest party in the government, the center of weight of the nation’s rule,” he says.

“I hear the comments from Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the expletives and obscenities — as far as they’re concerned, if they’re not leading, if the motorcade and offices have been taken away from them, you might as well close down the country. We will not let hatred and violence beat us.”

Lapid is set to become prime minister as part of a rotation deal with Yamina chief Naftali Bennett in 2023.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Soaring Omicron could lead to more dangerous variants, WHO warns

Soaring Omicron cases around the globe could increase the risk of a newer, more dangerous variant emerging, the World Health Organization in Europe warns.

While the variant is spreading like wildfire around the world, it appears to be far less severe than initially feared and has raised hopes that the pandemic could be overcome and life return to normal.

But WHO senior emergencies officer Catherine Smallwood sounds an ominous note of caution, telling AFP that the soaring infection rates could have the opposite effect.

“The more Omicron spreads, the more it transmits and the more it replicates, the more likely it is to throw out a new variant. Now, Omicron is lethal, it can cause death… maybe a little bit less than Delta, but who’s to say what the next variant might throw out,” Smallwood says.

People line up in a queue at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Europe has registered more than 100 million COVID cases since the start of the pandemic, and more than five million new cases in the last week of 2021, “almost dwarfing what we have seen in the past,” Smallwood says.

“We’re in a very dangerous phase, we’re seeing infection rates rise very significantly in Western Europe, and the full impact of that is not yet clear.”

Britain faces hospital crisis as daily COVID cases top 200,000

British hospitals have switched to a “war footing” due to staff shortages caused by a wave of Omicron infections, the government says, as the country’s daily COVID caseload breaches 200,000 for the first time.

The 24-hour tally, after chalking up multiple records in the run-up to New Year, hit 218,724 and another 48 deaths were reported in the latest government data.

Hospital admissions have not hit anything like the peaks of previous waves of the pandemic, and the number of people requiring ventilation has remained flat so far.

But the state-run National Health Service is struggling with staff forced to stay at home after testing positive, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised action to plug staffing gaps in the worst-hit areas.

“Anyone who thinks our battle with COVID is over, I’m afraid, is profoundly wrong. This is a moment for the utmost caution,” Johnson said.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference to update the nation on the status of the Covid-19 pandemic, in the Downing Street briefing room in central London, on January 4, 2022. (Jack Hill/Pool/AFP)

Officer who survived helicopter crash says he tried to pull the pilots out

The naval officer who escaped yesterday’s helicopter crash says he tried multiple times to pull the pilots out of the aircraft but was unable to do so.

“I was able to get myself out of the sinking helicopter and then, after many attempts to get my friends, [Lt. Col. Erez] Sachyani and [Maj. Chen] Fogel, out, I was rescued by a naval police patrol,” says the officer, Capt. Ron Berman, who until now has not been identified by name.

In a video statement, Berman sends condolences to the families of the two pilots, who died in the crash after they were unable to escape the cockpit, for as yet unknown reasons.

“I send a lot, a lot of strength and love to the families, to [Sachyani’s widow] Lilach… I love you, be strong,” he says, his voice breaking.

Maj. Ron Berman, right, a naval officer who escaped a helicopter crash, shakes hands with the head of the Israeli Navy, Maj. Gen. David Sa’ar Salame at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center on January 4, 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Berman, who was moderately injured in the crash with a broken vertebra and mild hypothermia, is visited in Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, where he is recuperating, by the heads of the Israeli Navy and Israeli Air Force.

“You acted bravely and calmly, I am glad you’re alive. You’re receiving excellent care. Come back to us fast, they’re waiting for you at home and in the squadron,” IAF chief Amikam Norkin tells Berman.

Navy chief David Saar Salame lauds the officer, saying he “did everything he could and everything possible” to help the pilots.

Lebanese currency drops to a new record low

The Lebanese pound crosses the symbolic threshold of 30,000 to the dollar on the black market in a new record low, according to websites monitoring the exchange rate.

The pound now trades at 20 times the official peg value of 1,500 pounds to the greenback, with no end in sight to the economic and political crisis plunging ever-growing numbers into poverty.

The currency has lost more than 95 percent of its value on the black market in the past two years. The purchasing power of people has plummeted, and the minimum monthly wage of 675,000 pounds is now worth just $22.

In this January 14, 2020 file photo, anti-government protesters smash a bank widow during protests against the Lebanese central bank’s governor and against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Activists have called for rallies outside the central bank headquarters in Beirut on Saturday to protest the devaluation of the currency.

According to the United Nations, four in five Lebanese are now considered poor. The World Bank estimates it may take Lebanon nearly two decades to recover its pre-crisis per capita GDP.

Attorney general: Government decision is needed in order to shut down Army Radio

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit submits his legal opinion to the Defense Ministry on the minister’s plan to shut down the Army Radio station.

Mandelblit says the decision can not be made by Benny Gantz and IDF chief Aviv Kohavi alone. A government decision is necessary, he writes, and a Knesset bill is preferable.

Gantz and Kohavi said last year they wanted to close down the news station, operating since 1950, saying it is not right for soldiers to be tied to political affairs.

A soldier-reporter for Israel’s Army Radio, on November 11, 2019. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Webb telescope fully deploys sunshield in mission milestone: NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope has fully deployed its five-layer sunshield, a critical milestone for the success of its mission to study every phase of cosmic history, US space agency NASA says.

“All five layers of the sunshield are fully tensioned,” according to an announcer at the telescope’s mission control team in Baltimore, to cheers from team members.

Palestinian prisoner Hisham Abu Hawash to end hunger strike, attorneys say

Palestinian hunger-striker Hisham Abu Hawash will end his hunger strike in the coming hours after 141 days, according to his attorneys.

Lawyer Khaled Mahajneh, part of the team representing Abu Hawash, says that Israel has agreed not to renew his administrative detention. He is set to be released on February 26.

Abu Hawash has been held in Israel without charges since October 2020.

According to the Shin Bet, Abu Hawash is an Islamic Jihad member involved in terror activity. He was previously imprisoned for aiding other Palestinians who committed attacks on Israeli soldiers.

The Shin Bet did not immediately comment.

Military asks police to review its probe into mysterious death of intel officer

The military opens for review by police its investigation into the death under unclear circumstances of a Military Intelligence officer.

The officer, who was being held in jail under accusations of grave security offenses, and whose name is barred from publication, was found dead in his cell on May 16. There was no clear sign of death, and an autopsy in Israel, as well as a blood test at a specialized forensic laboratory in the United States, were inconclusive.

Yet the military’s own investigations “found no evidence that the departed’s death was caused by a criminal act,” the Israel Defense Forces says in a statement.

Despite determining that the probes were “comprehensive and conducted professionally,” IDF Military Advocate General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi decided that given the highly irregular nature of the incident — both the inexplicable death and the severe nature of the crimes attributed to him — the case warranted further investigation, the IDF says.

“Therefore she decided that all of the investigation materials will be handed over in their entirety for consideration by a special advisory team from the Israel police,” the military says.

The officer, who served in a Military Intelligence technology unit, had not yet been indicted when he died, but would have been charged with nearly two dozen separate offenses and faced at least a 10-year prison sentence.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi hails the decision to open the investigation to the police, saying “we must do everything to explore every possible direction in the investigation and to bring this to a close as quickly as possible.”

Likud MK calls to ‘form an alternative parliament’ as opposition fumes

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi calls to “form an alternative parliament” to the Knesset as the opposition seethes over “anti-democratic moves” by the coalition.

“If this illegitimate coalition silences us, in the committees, in the plenum and in general, we should form an alternative parliament,” Karhi tweets.

“A parliament that will discuss, oversee, legislate and truly represent the people until this loathsome regime is replaced.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi speaks during a rally against the government in Tel Aviv, on December 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

IAF official: Chopper flotation system worked, ‘don’t know why’ pilots didn’t escape

The helicopter that crashed last night appears to have sustained a malfunction in its left motor, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing, a senior Israeli Air Force officer says.

According to Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar, the head of the IAF’s Air Division, the motor malfunction apparently caused a power outage on the helicopter, which is why the pilots were not able to report the crash to the control tower.

This assessment is based on an initial investigation into the crash, based on fragments of the helicopter that have so far been recovered and were sent to the Tel Nof Air Base for examination.

Illustrative: An Israeli Air Force Eurocopter AS565 Panther helicopter lands on board the USS Laboon, on May 13, 2015. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Desmond Parks/Released)

One of the most significant questions facing investigators is why the pilots were unable to escape the aircraft when a naval officer on board managed to do so.

The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS565 Panther, is specially designed for naval operations and is able to make emergency landings directly on the water with a built-in flotation device. According to Lazar, this flotation system was activated by the pilots as they made the emergency landing and it deployed correctly, which allowed the naval officer to escape. “We don’t know why the pilots’ didn’t,” he says.

The helicopter eventually sank and the pilots were found by rescuers inside the cockpit of the aircraft with their seatbelts still fastened, he says.

According to the investigation, the naval officer who escaped tried to go back to get the pilots, but was unable to. While floating at sea, the officer took out his personal cellphone and called the head of the squadron to tell him what had happened. “The squadron commander told him to stay calm and take care of himself,” Lazar says.

Prince Andrew lawyers say accuser ‘waived rights,’ urge judge to dismiss case

A lawyer for Britain’s Prince Andrew tells a New York judge that he should dismiss a sexual assault lawsuit against the British royal because of a settlement his accuser signed in 2009.

Andrew Brettler says Virginia Giuffre had “waived her rights” to sue other defendants in relation to alleged sex crimes committed by late disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Britain’s Prince Andrew at the Royal Chapel of All Saints at Royal Lodge, Windsor, England, on April 11, 2021. (Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP, File)

“Miss Giuffre intended to release a broad category of individuals, including royalty, including businessmen,” says Brettler, referring to the agreement between Giuffre and Epstein which was made public for the first time yesterday.

Opposition to boycott vote on electricity law over committee fast-tracking

A controversial bill that would allow thousands of illegally built homes in Arab communities to be connected to the power grid will go up for its second and third readings at the Knesset tonight.

The law is desired by the coalition’s Ra’am party. Around 130,000 Arab Israelis live in illegally built homes in cities across the country that cannot be connected to the national grid under existing legislation. Arab Israelis blame outdated urban plans that classify open land as “agricultural” rather than residential, while the Israeli right criticizes what it calls lawlessness in Arab communities.

Ahead of the Knesset deliberations and vote, the opposition announces it will boycott proceedings, in protest of the bill being fast-tracked through a Knesset committee.

The opposition says the move came over the objections of Knesset legal advisers, “to silence the opposition’s criticism… [against a bill] that certifies the theft of state lands through Arab construction of tens of thousands of illegal buildings.”

A lawmaker addresses the Knesset plenum during a session to vote on approving the state budget, November 2, 2021. (Noam Moshkavitz/GPO)

Court rulings to be broadcast live in cases of public interest, under new pilot

Israel’s court system will start a pilot program in the coming year, under which rulings in cases that are of public interest in magistrate and district courts will be broadcast live.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut announces the decision after conferring with court presidents throughout the country. The move is intended to increase transparency and follows a pilot that has seen some court sessions at the Supreme Court broadcast live.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Ester Hayut speaks at a hearing to discuss the vacant justice minister post on April 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Thousands at Haifa funeral of pilot killed in military chopper crash

Thousands of people take part in the funeral of one of the pilots killed in yesterday’s military chopper crash, Maj. Chen Fogel.

The funeral is held in Haifa’s military cemetery.

Fogel’s father Yaron said earlier that his son joined the air force “because of his love for the country.” He said Chen wanted “to enlist to the top [job]” and had intended to serve in an elite infantry unit but decided to try out for pilot after getting an offer.

Naval officer hurt in helicopter crash released from ICU

The naval officer who was moderately injured in last night’s helicopter crash has been released from Rambam Medical Center’s intensive care unit as his condition has improved, the hospital says.

The officer, whose name has not been released, will continue to recuperate in the hospital’s orthopedic ward. “He is in good condition,” a Rambam spokesperson says.

The spokesperson adds a request from the officer’s family to respect their privacy and “not harass them during this complicated moment.”

Top COVID expert defends latest boosters: ‘We’re always ahead of the rest’

Prof. Galia Rahav, head of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Laboratory who is running a trial on the effectiveness of fourth vaccine doses against Omicron, rejects criticism by the World Health Organization over Israel’s booster program.

WHO officials have said repeated boosters in wealthy countries will not end the pandemic, and that shots must be diverted to poorer nations to inoculate their populations, or else new variants will continue to emerge.

Rahav tells Channel 12: “We’re always ahead of the rest. That’s been the case the whole way. We learned a lot about the third shot before the rest. And we saw its amazing effect — reducing illness in the most impressive way.”

Now, she said, populations that received the third shot six months ago “don’t have neutralizing antibodies in the blood. We’re starting to see a little contagion among those in elderly care facilities — illness and hospitalization.”

Screen capture from video of Prof. Galia Rahav head of the Infectious Disease Unit at the Sheba Medical Center. (YouTube)

Notably, antibodies are expected go down over time, and their presence is only a part of the immune system’s preparedness for contagion.

“We don’t yet have clinical, peer-reviewed data showing the effectiveness of the fourth shot. But checking the danger on one hand and the chances [that the booster is effective] on the other, the chances [that it is] are far higher.”

PM says early data shows 4th dose brings fivefold increase in antibodies

The prime minister says preliminary data on the fourth vaccine dose shows that it safely brings about a fivefold increase in antibodies that battle the coronavirus.

Naftali Bennett speaks during a visit to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where the government launched a trial of second boosters early last week. It is now offering fourth doses of the Pfizer vaccine to people over 60 years old alongside those with weakened immune systems.

Bennett says initial results show the fourth dose is as safe as the third dose, which has already been given to almost half of Israel’s population of nearly 9.5 million.

Bennett speaks to officials during a visit to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, January 4, 2022 (Courtesy)

He says the increase in antibodies indicates “a very high likelihood that the fourth dose will protect vaccinated people to a great degree.”

Ambassador to UN Gilad Erdan tests positive for coronavirus

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Erdan was tested after his children were diagnosed with the virus.

The entire family is asymptomatic.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan addresses the Security Council on October 19, 2021. (Courtesy)

UK says ‘grave concern’ over Palestinian hunger-striker

The United Kingdom expresses “grave concern” over the deteriorating medical condition of Palestinian hunger-striker Hisham Abu Hawash, who is in critical condition after refusing to eat for 141 days in protest of his detention by Israel.

“According to international law, administrative detention should only be used when security makes this absolutely necessary. Israel must comply with its obligations under international law and either charge or release detainees,” the UK’s envoy to the Palestinians says.

Report: Navy officer jumped out of chopper during emergency landing, saving his life

Channel 12 reports new details on yesterday’s deadly helicopter accident.

According to the network, the naval officer who survived the crash has told friends that during the flight the chopper’s left engine caught fire, leading the pilots to initiate an emergency landing in the sea.

As per emergency regulations, the naval officer opened the helicopter’s side doors, and when the helicopter came down for a landing and was near the water he jumped out and swam away. The chopper then hit the water and the pilots did not survive.

The network said there are preliminary assessments that the pilots were not killed by the crash, but rather that the aircraft’s cabin filled with smoke, causing the pilots to lose consciousness and then drown.

The network does not cite sources for this, and stresses that the investigation is ongoing.

An Israeli army flare illuminates the sky during searches after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2021. Inset: The two soldiers killed, Lt.-Col. Erez Sachyani (right) and Major Chen Fogel (Alon Nadav/Flash90; Israel Defense Forces)

Palestinian paper: Egypt attempting to mediate end to Palestinian prisoner’s hunger strike

Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds reports that Egypt is attempting to mediate an end to the hunger strike of a Palestinian prisoner who has caused increased tensions between Israel and Gaza terror groups.

Hisham Abu Hawash has been on a hunger strike in protest of his detention by Israel without trial for 137 days, according to his lawyers.

The Islamic Jihad terror group has threatened violence should Abu Hawash die.

According to Al-Quds, Egypt is suggesting that Israel not extend his administrative detention beyond February. In exchange he will end his strike.

Palestinian administrative detainee Hisham Abu Hawash with his two sons at the Asaf Harofeh Medical Center on December 26, 2021. (Screen capture/ YouTube)

Sudan pro-democracy groups call for mass anti-coup protests

Sudanese pro-democracy groups call for mass anti-coup protests as the country plunges further into turmoil following the resignation of the prime minister earlier this week.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was ousted in a coup in October, only to be reinstated a month later following a deal with the military meant to calm tensions and anti-coup protests. Hamdok stepped down Sunday amid political deadlock, saying he had failed to find a compromise between the ruling generals and the pro-democracy movement.

Authorities have closed major roads and streets in the capital of Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman ahead of the protests, according to activists. Such tactics have been employed in the past two months to prevent demonstrators from reaching government buildings.

People chant slogans during a protest to denounce the October 2021 military coup, in Khartoum, Sudan, Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022 (AP Photo/Marwan Ali)

Cyprus mulls new COVID measures as per capita rate is world’s highest

Cypriot authorities are meeting to consider new restrictions to rein in a COVID-19 infection rate that is now the highest in the world per capita.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades is to meet with scientific advisers to discuss measures that could include a delayed start to the new school term and restrictions on church gatherings as the island prepares to mark Epiphany, a key date in the Greek Orthodox religious calendar, on Thursday.

Like other European countries, the Mediterranean island has been hit by a surge in cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Medics administer the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on January 2, 2022, as the country begins vaccinations for children between the ages of five and eleven, amid a sharp surge in coronavirus cases. (Iakovos Hatzistavrou / AFP)

According to AFP figures, Cyprus recorded the world’s highest COVID infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants over the past seven days.

It was top with 2,505 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Denmark (2,117), Ireland (1,946), Greece (1,762) and France (1,680).

NATO foreign ministers to hold emergency talks on Ukraine

NATO foreign ministers will hold an emergency videoconference on Friday to discuss Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, after a raft of demands from Moscow, the alliance says.

Tensions have soared in recent months as the West has warned that the Kremlin could be planning a full-scale invasion of its neighbor after massing some 100,000 troops at the frontier.

High-ranking officials from the United States and NATO are set to hold talks with Russia next week after Moscow laid down a list of demands for Washington and the Western military alliance.

The Kremlin is insisting NATO must never grant membership for ex-Soviet Ukraine and must roll back its forces near Russia’s border.

But the West has rejected what it calls a bid by Moscow to dictate the future of independent partners and threatened Moscow with “severe costs” if it launches a fresh incursion of Ukraine.

PM on air force chopper crash: ‘Pilots gave their lives for Israel’s security’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett comments on yesterday’s chopper crash that killed two air force pilots.

“It’s a difficult day for Israel. We lost two sons, two pilots, some of our best,” he says. “I share in the grief of the families for the loss of Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Maj. Chen Fogel, men who gave their lives for Israel’s security, day after day, night after night.”

Bennett also wished a swift recovery to the naval officer wounded in the crash.

Israeli Navy chief David Saar Salam visits Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center to see the naval officer.

Washed up parts of a military helicopter lie on the ground after it crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2021. (Alon Nadav/Flash90)

Sachyani and Fogel were killed in the crash yesterday night, as the AS565 Panther helicopter hit the sea off the coast of Haifa. Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin has grounded the choppers, which are used in cooperation with the navy due to their capability to land on missile ships. The military is investigating the accident.

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