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Hundreds of rescuers still stuck in south Syria after evacuation

‘White Helmets’ volunteer says 400 remain stranded, worried colleagues’ transport through Israel may draw reprisals from approaching regime troops

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

  • In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)
    In this photo taken on October 5, 2016, Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus. (AFP PHOTO / Sameer Al-Doumy)
  • Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 24, 2011. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
    Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 24, 2011. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
  • Protesters for LGBT rights march in Tel Aviv, July 22, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
    Protesters for LGBT rights march in Tel Aviv, July 22, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
  • Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on July 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit attends a conference at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on July 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • US President Donald Trump waves as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, on July 20, 2018.
Trump will be spending the weekend at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.   / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON
    US President Donald Trump waves as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, on July 20, 2018. Trump will be spending the weekend at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON

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

IDF says Syria missiles launched at Israel, backtracks on false alarm

The targets of the first known operational launch of the David’s Sling air defense system on Monday were a pair of Syrian surface-to-surface missiles carrying approximately a half ton of explosives, which appeared to be heading toward northern Israel, according to the military’s initial investigation.

Ultimately, the two Syrian SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles, which were fired as part of the country’s internal fighting, did not clear the border and landed one kilometer inside Syria.

The David’s Sling’s two interceptor missiles were launched as a precautionary measure when the system calculated that the Syrian projectiles were likely to hit northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee.

After a period of time, the air defense battery’s computers determined that the Syrian missiles were going to fall short. At that point, one of the interceptor missiles was ordered to self-destruct, doing so over northern Israel, in the southern Golan Heights.

The army’s initial investigation had yet to determine what happened to the second interceptor, if it intercepted one of the Syrian missiles, if it landed in Syria or if it successfully self-destructed over Syria.

There were concerns in the military that if the David’s Sling interceptor missile landed intact in Syria it could be taken by the Syrian military and used to gather intelligence about the air defense system’s capabilities, though this was not seen as a likely scenario.

— Judah Ari Gross

Syria slams ‘criminal’ evacuation of White Helmets by Israel

The foreign ministry in Damascus condemns the evacuation of hundreds of trapped White Helmets rescue workers and their relatives from Syria’s south through Israel.

“The criminal operation that Israel and its tools conducted in the area reveals the true nature of the so-called White Helmets,” says a source at the foreign ministry, cited by state news agency SANA.


Tzipi Livni to replace Herzog as opposition leader

Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay announces that Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni will be appointed the Knesset opposition leader and will preserve her Hatnua party’s alliance with Labor in the Zionist Union faction in the 2019 elections.

Livni will be replacing Isaac Herzog, who gave up his Knesset seat to become head of the Jewish Agency.

The former foreign minister says her leadership will create “a strong opposition and a strong alternative for Israel with the Zionist Union at the center.”

Lapid: Future peace deal must include Israeli control of Jordan Valley

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid says any future peace agreement with Palestinians must include Israeli security control of the Jordan Valley.

“There is no future agreement in which it does not function as the security border of the State of Israel. It belongs to the State of Israel,” he says during a tour of the Jordan Valley.

“This place is security, it’s agriculture, it’s Zionism… thanks to this holy triangle Israelis are able to exist in this crazy neighborhood,” he says.

Lapid also praises the female soldiers serving in the mixed gender units guarding the area, saying “this too is security for the State of Israel.”

— Jacob Magid

Germany urges restraint as US-Iran rhetoric spirals

Germany is calling for restraint amid escalating rhetoric between the leaders of Iran and the United States.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger tells reporters in Berlin: “We support dialogue and talks, and we call on all sides to exercise restraint and rhetorical disarmament.”

US President Donald Trump tweeted late last night that hostile threats from Iran could bring dire consequences. Earlier in the day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said America “must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Burger says that “threats of military force are never helpful, and I think that particularly in the tense situation in the Middle East this is not a helpful means of discourse.”

— AP

Gunmen storm Iraq Kurdish governor’s office, killing one

Three gunmen stormed the governor’s headquarters in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, opening fire and killing one employee before being shot dead, officials say.

Initial reports said two gunmen had stormed the building in Erbil in the early morning and had shot and wounded a policeman.

But as the day unfolded the toll rose to one employee killed and several members of the security forces wounded as Kurdish security forces exchanged fire with the attackers, according to officials.

Deputy police chief for the Kurdish autonomous region Farhad Mohammed says “several members of the security forces were wounded,” but did not give a specific toll.

Mohammed says the three gunmen had been “neutralized” after a four-hour exchange of fire with Kurdish security forces.


Parole board okays early release for man who killed his rapist

The parole board at Rimonim Prison agrees to grant early release to Yonatan Heilo, who has served eight years in prison for killing his rapist.

Heilo will be eligible to leave prison today, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

The board’s decision to approve Heilo’s request to be paroled comes after state prosecutors last week withdrew their opposition to his early release.

Heilo, who has long fought for early release, was sentenced in 2013 to 20 years in prison for killing the man who repeatedly raped, robbed and blackmailed him in 2010.

He became eligible for early release in 2016, after the Supreme Court cut eight years from his original sentence, and President Reuven Rivlin commuted part of his remaining sentence in November 2017. But state prosecutors opposed Heilo’s release, leading the Israel Prisons Service parole board to reject his request at the time.

PM pledges millions to ‘rehabilitate’ areas with high percentage of migrants

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the government will invest tens of millions of shekels to strengthen neighborhoods with a high percentage of illegal migrants.

Speaking at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said south Tel Aviv and other areas are “groaning under the burden of a complex reality” and would be defined as “national priority areas.”

He says the funds will go to improve social services, education and healthcare in those areas.

White House: Trump won’t tolerate Iran threats

The White House says US President Donald Trump’s threatening tweet shows he’s not going to tolerate critical rhetoric from Iran, but claims the US leader isn’t escalating tensions between the two countries.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders says that “if anybody’s inciting anything, look no further than to Iran.”

Sanders says that Trump has been “very clear about what he’s not going to allow to take place.”


Trump was responding to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani comments that “America must understand well that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace and war with Iran is the mother of all wars.”

Sanders says Trump is not trying to change the conversation from his much-criticized Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

— AP

IDF fires at Gazans flying incendiary balloons into Israel

An IDF drone fires at a group of Gazans flying incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Strip, according to Palestinian media.

The Israeli military confirms that one of its aircraft targeted a “terror cell” launching arson devices in northern Gaza.

According to the Hamas-linked Shehab news outlet, the group was operating in an area near the border, east of the city of Jabaliya.

There are no injuries immediately reported.

The airstrike comes amid a period of heightened tensions in the coastal enclave, as Israel demands an end to the arson attacks and has threatened a large military operation if this does not happen.

— Judah Ari Gross

IDF shells 2 Hamas positions after incendiary balloons launched into Israel

The Israeli military shells two Hamas observation posts in the central Gaza Strip after targeting a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel, Palestinian media reports.

The IDF does not immediately confirm the reports.

There are no immediate reports of injuries.

This would be the second such strike on Hamas positions following a ceasefire with the terrorist group, which has largely held since it was reached on Friday night.

— Judah Ari Gross

AG says he supports registering same-sex couples as parents

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announces his support for a petition filed to the High Court of Justice demanding that gay fathers be allowed to be registered as parents on their children’s birth certificates.

Mandelblit says denying both fathers to be officially registered as parents “infringes on equal rights.” He also says he rejects Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s opposition to listing both same-sex partners as parents.

Trump says he gave up nothing at Helsinki summit

Still facing bipartisan criticism of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump says he “gave up NOTHING” during their summit last week.

Trump says in a Monday tweet: “remember, I gave up NOTHING, we merely talked about future benefits for both countries.”

Trump’s public doubting of US intelligence conclusions about Russian election interference during the Helsinki summit sparked waves of condemnation from political allies and days of walk-backs from his administration.

Trump adds on the Putin meeting: “Also, we got along very well, which is a good thing, except for the Corrupt Media!”

— AP

Hundreds of Syrian refugees return home from Lebanon

Hundreds of Syrian refugees are leaving Lebanon for their neighboring home country, an AFP reporter says, the latest such return coordinated between Beirut and Damascus.

In Lebanon’s eastern border town of Arsal, men, women and children of all ages pile into cars, minivans and tractors. Security forces check the identity papers of those about to make the journey back to Syria with suitcases, boxes of food and even live poultry, an AFP photographer says.

“The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started” on Monday morning, Lebanon’s state news agency NNA reports.

Seven years into Syria’s war, Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, compared with a local population of 4.5 million. Over the past few months, more than 800 Syrians have left Lebanon in similar operations organized by the governments of Beirut and Damascus.


Car blast in Afula injures at least one — reports

A car explosion in the northern city of Afula injures at least one person that was inside the vehicle, Hebrew-language media reports.

No other details were immediately available.

PM tells evangelicals Israel in ‘complete solidarity’ with persecuted Christians in Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells a group of evangelical Christians that Israel stands in “complete solidarity” with the persecuted Christians in Iran.

Addressing the Christians United For Israel annual summit in Washington DC via video link, Netanyahu thanks the evangelical community “for always standing with Israel.”

“You are among our greatest friends in the world. I cherish that friendship,” he says according to CUFI.

Trump security adviser echoes warning to Iran

US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser is echoing his boss’s combative warning to Iran against deploying any more threatening language toward the US.

Ambassador John Bolton says he’s spoken with Trump over the last several days and, “President Trump told me that if Iran does anything at all to the negative, they will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declines to say whether Trump had consulted with national security aides before sending his all-caps Sunday night tweet that warned Iran might “SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

She says: “The president consults with his national security team on a daily basis.”

— AP

Afula car bombing victim in critical condition

Paramedics say the man injured in a car bombing in Afula earlier this afternoon was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

An MDA paramedic tells the Ynet news site that passersby pulled the man from his burning vehicle shortly after the explosion.

Russian FM meets Netanyahu in Jerusalem over Syria, Iran

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in talks focusing on the Iranian presence in Syria.

The Russian delegation visited Netanyahu’s residence last night.

Netanyahu announced earlier today that Russian President Vladimir Putin had requested the meeting.

He said he will reiterate Israel’s position that it expects Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian-backed allies to honor the 1974 agreement which sets out a demilitarized zone along their shared frontier, and that Israel will continue to act to stop its archenemy Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.

Hours before the meeting Israel intercepted rockets from the fighting in Syria it believed were heading its way.

Netanyahu and Putin discussed Syria and Iran earlier this month in Moscow.

— AP

Youth basketball team returns to Israel with European championship

Israel’s national under-20 basketball team lands at Ben Gurion airport, a day after taking home the gold at the FIBA European Championships for the first time in the country’s history.

The youth team continued its six-game winning streak last night, beating the previously undefeated Croatia 89-66 in the finals.

Team members show off their trophy to fans and journalists as they exit the plane.

Rivlin pays condolence visit to family of IDF soldier killed on Gaza border

President Reuven Rivlin pays a condolence visit to the family IDF Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, who was killed by Palestinian sniper fire on the Gaza border on Friday.

“Your son protected all of us, our security is based on these young soldiers who bear the burden of protecting our country,” he tells the Levi family in their Petah Tikva home.

“It’s because of them that we can develop our country. It’s both our strength and our pain,” he says.

Levi, a 21-year-old infantry soldier in the Givati Brigade, was laid to rest in his hometown yesterday afternoon. He was the first IDF fatality on the Gaza front since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Deputy Jerusalem mayor: Fallen Western Wall stone ‘food for thought’ for Reform Jews

Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Dov Kalmanovich says the large stone that came crashing down on the Western Wall’s egalitarian plaza should serve as “food for thought” for Reform Jews.

While Kalmanovich, of the national-religious Jewish Home party, says it’s not always relevant to attribute natural phenomena to the divine, he says “the timing and the location of the fall raise many questions,” according to the Israel National News site.

“The falling of one of the Western Wall stones, so close to Tisha B’Av, and exactly at the location of the disputed prayer area, should be a red light for us all,” he says. “I suggest that Reform leaders, Women of the Wall and the other provocateurs examine themselves, and not the wall.”

The large boulder that fell this morning near Robinson’s Arch, south of the main prayer plaza, landed on a platform used as an area for nondenominational prayer. The establishment of a permanent, non-Orthodox prayer space has been subject to heavy criticism by some religious officials.

Afula car bombing victim dies of injuries

The man critically injured in a car bombing in Afula this afternoon dies of his injuries.

The explosion is a suspected underworld assassination.

Police have opened an investigation into the blast.

Likud MK Bitan again grilled in bribery probe

Former coalition whip David Bitan is being interrogated at the Lod headquarters of Israel Police’s Lahav 433 national fraud unit in an investigation into suspected corruption in the Rishon Lezion and Tel Aviv municipalities.

Bitan has been summoned for police questioning regarding the investigation at least seven times.

The Likud lawmaker, who stepped down as coalition whip after the probe became public, but is still a Knesset member, is suspected of receiving hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, both while serving as deputy mayor of the coastal city of Rishon Lezion and as a member of parliament.

Netanyahu meets with UN peace envoy for talks on ‘regional issues’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the United Nations envoy for Middle East peace, Nickolay Mladenov, at his office in Jerusalem to discuss “regional issues and the situation in Gaza,” according to a PMO statement.

Israelis support Palestinian vendor punished for selling pretzels during Jewish fast

In a show of solidarity, dozens of Israelis are buying pretzels from a Palestinian vendor in Jerusalem’s Old City, whose food cart was confiscated yesterday for selling food on a Jewish fast day.

Yesterday evening, far-right Jerusalem councilman Arieh King boasted on Facebook of his recent success in “Judaizing” the capital, after he reported Sabah to the municipality for not having a proper license to operate his cart.

King took issue with the fact that Sabah was selling food on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish fast day.

Shortly after King filed a complaint, police arrived at Sabah’s cart and took it apart. King posted a picture of the pretzels spilled on the ground, writing to local residents they “have a representative who is concerned about the Jewish character of Jerusalem.”

The Tag Meir anti-racism group slammed both King and the municipality for its selective enforcement of shop permits. The group pointed out that the far-right Lahava group has operated a table in downtown Jerusalem without a permit for years and the municipality has never shuttered it.

— Jacob Magid

Ahead of Lavrov meeting, PM hails ‘extraordinarily important’ ties with Russia

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praises the commitment of US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore calm to the restive Israel-Syria border.

Speaking to reporters at his office in Jerusalem ahead of a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Netanyahu hails Jerusalem’s ties with Moscow as “extraordinarily important.”

“I appreciate what President Putin and President Trump said about Israel’s security at the last summit,” he says according to a PMO statement.

After a closed-door meeting with Trump in Helsinki last week, Putin said that a plan to return regime troops to the Syrian Golan Heights after the rebels’ surrender would “restore quiet to the Golan Heights, bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security to the State of Israel.”

Trump said both Russia and the US were committed to Israel’s security and both countries would work toward that end. “Creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much,” Trump said at the joint press conference with Putin.

Israel rejects Russian offer to keep Iranian forces 100 km from border

Russia agreed to keep Iranian forces in Syria 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Israel’s northern border, a senior Israeli official says, moments after a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded in Jerusalem.

However, Israel rejected that compromise and continues to demand that Iran not be allowed any military foothold in Syria, the official says. Israel furthermore demands that all long-range missiles be removed from the war-torn country and that any missile factories there be shut, the officials said.

— Raphael Ahren

Hundreds of rescuers still stuck in south Syria after evacuation via Israel

Several hundred Syrian rescuers remain trapped in the country’s south with no escape from approaching regime troops, two of them say, a day after a secret evacuation saved many of their colleagues.

Israel yesterday helped around 400 opposition-linked White Helmet rescue workers and their families flee a neighboring pocket of southwestern Syria as government forces bore down on them.

They were then taken to Jordan, and will be resettled to Western nations including France, Britain, Germany, and Canada.

But a similar number remain trapped in southern Syria.

“We’re calling on concerned parties to help us leave,” says Cesar, a 23-year-old White Helmets worker in the southern city of Daraa.

He estimates some 400 fellow rescuers were still in the provinces of Daraa, bordering Jordan, and Quneitra, next to the buffer zone abutting the Golan Heights.

Cesar says he learned of the operation a few days ago “by chance,” but when he contacted White Helmets leadership, they told him it was too late to register to leave.

“They set another meeting for today on the subject, but we found out a little while ago that the efforts failed. The fact that some White Helmets members left and some stayed hurt us more than it helped us,” he tells AFP. “Yesterday’s evacuation through Israel only made things worse. We’re afraid of the regime and Russia’s reactions.”


Iraq protests leave 14 dead in two weeks, rights official says

At least 14 people have been killed in Iraq, in two weeks of protests over corruption and lack of public services, a member of the state human rights commission says.

Demonstrations have rocked southern and central Iraq since erupting in the oil-rich port city of Basra on July 8, when security forces opened fire killing one person.

They have since waned, after security forces repeatedly used force to disperse demonstrators, although AFP reporters cited protests in the south yesterday.

Rights commission official Fadel al-Gharrawi says 14 people died in Basra, Samawah, the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, and in the provinces of Diwaniyah and Babylon.

He did not specify whether those killed were protesters or members of the security services, but a Sunday toll compiled from medical sources put the number of dead at 11, all demonstrators.

Gharrawi says 275 protesters and 470 security personnel were wounded during thousands-strong demonstrations against corrupt officials.


Liberman to make decision on Gaza border crossing tomorrow

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has decided to put off rendering his decision whether or not to reopen the Gaza Strip’s main crossing for goods until tomorrow, his office says.

Yesterday, the defense minister announced that the Kerem Shalom Crossing into the coastal enclave would fully reopen on tomorrow morning, if there was a total halt in violence from Gaza.

While yesterday and today saw some of the quietest days since March 30, a number of low-level clashes and incidents took place in the border area.

— Judah Ari Gross

IDF chief: Thwarting Iran entrenchment in Syria our ‘central effort’ last year

The prime focus of the Israel Defense Forces over the past year has been preventing Iranian forces from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, the IDF chief says.

According to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the military has seen a number of victories on this front, though they were largely out of the public eye.

“Over the past year, the campaign to prevent Irnaian entrenchment north of the country was the central effort of the Israel Defense Forces, which led to many operational achievements, most of which were hidden from view,” Eisenkot says at an event for the Ametz Lochem (Adopt a Fighter) project.

The army chief says the military will continue to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.

“We will continue to act to provide security and a feeling of security, to strengthen our deterrence [against Israel’s enemies] and our preparedness in order to allow the state to develop and grow in security,” he says.

The IDF chief also eulogizes Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, who was shot dead by a Gazan sniper on Friday — the first Israeli soldier killed by an attack from the Strip since the 2014 Gaza war. “His determination, heroism and understanding of the importance of combat service — these are a testament that he left behind and for which every soldier must act,” he says.

— Judah Ari Gross

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