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Ministers okay further easing of virus restrictions

Coronavirus cabinet approves increasing capacity at sporting, cultural events; also expected to impose limitations on gatherings over Passover, Ramadan

Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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

Rivlin said invited to address joint session of US Congress

President Reuven Rivlin is considering whether to accept a bipartisan invitation to address a joint session of US Congress, the Ynet news site reports.

The report notes it is unclear whether Congress can fully convene before Rivlin ends his term as president in July due to coronavirus restrictions.

The president is currently in Europe, where he is wrapping up a visit to Germany, Austria and France.

France to rollout fresh restrictions amid spike in COVID patients at ICUs

PARIS — France is set to announce new coronavirus restrictions, including a potential lockdown in the Paris region and in the north of the country, as the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units spikes.

“We will make the decisions we need to make,” French President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday while visiting the hospital of Poissy and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris. He added the new measures will be “pragmatic, proportionated and targeted.”

Prime Minister Jean Castex is scheduled to detail the restrictions this evening.

The virus is rapidly spreading in the Paris region, where the rate of infection has reached over 420 per 100,000 inhabitants and ICUs are closed to saturation. France’s nationwide infection rate is about 250 per 100,000.

As during previous infection peaks, health authorities have organized transfers of critically ill patients to less-affected regions to ease some of the pressure on hospitals in Paris and in northern and southern France.

People in France have been under a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. nationwide curfew for two months.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government had hoped the measure would prevent the country of 67 million people from the economic, social and psychological impact of another lockdown.

Yet confirmed virus cases and ICU demand both have risen steadily in recent weeks. The more contagious virus variant first identified in the UK accounts for most cases, and around 250 people are dying each day from the virus.

Putin on Biden ‘killer’ remark: ‘Takes one to know one’

Russian President Vladimir Putin participates via video link in a ceremony launching a gold processing facility in Kyrgyzstan, in Moscow on March 17, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin participates via video link in a ceremony launching a gold processing facility in Kyrgyzstan, in Moscow on March 17, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says it “takes one to know one” in response to US President Joe Biden describing him as a “killer.”

“We always see in another person our own qualities and think that he is the same as us,” Putin says in televised remarks.

He adds that Moscow won’t sever ties with Washington but will work with the United States on terms “beneficial” to Russia.

IDF reportedly set to let vaccinated troops travel abroad

The Israel Defense Forces is expected to begin allowing soldiers who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 to travel abroad, after a year during which they’ve faced sweeping restrictions on overseas travel, Army Radio reports.

The relaxed travel rules are likely to come into force on March 25, according to the report.

Rivlin said to tell German president that Israel won’t intervene in Palestinian elections

President Reuven Rivlin told his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier during their talks in Berlin that Israel won’t intervene in the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections, the Walla news site reports.

“The Palestinians are taking a big risk with democratic elections in which a clearly non-democratic movement can rise [to power] that the world also sees as a terror organization, like Hamas, which can take over Palestinian institutions,” sources on Rivlin’s behalf are quoted saying.

WHO urges continued use of AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The World Health Organization renews a call for countries to continue the use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, shortly before expected assessments by EU and UN agencies.

The call comes as several European countries have halted the use of the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company’s vaccine over reports of blood clots related to the vaccine.

The WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS)– created in 1999 to address safety issues related to vaccines of potential global importance — is due to publish the conclusions of its assessment of the safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccin.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is also expected to announce its decision on the continued use of the vaccine.

But as of now, “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine far outweigh its risks and its use should continue, to save lives,” the WHO’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge tells a press conference.

“In vaccination campaigns, it is routine to signal potential adverse events. This does not necessarily mean that the events are linked to the vaccination,” Kluge says, repeating calls from the WHO to continue the use of the vaccine while the issue is investigated.

“As of now, we do not know whether some or all of the conditions have been caused by the vaccine or by other coincidental factors. WHO is assessing the latest safety data, and once completed, the findings will be made public,” Kluge says.

Health minister slams High Court order nixing limit on Israelis entering country

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at the 'Besheva' conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at the 'Besheva' conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein lashes out at the High Court of Justice for striking down restrictions on the entry of Israeli citizens to the country ahead of next week’s elections.

“The High Court ruling is irresponsible and contrary to the public interest,” Edelstein says while visiting Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv.

Pregnant woman dies at Kfar Saba hospital from internal bleeding

A 36-week pregnant woman dies at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba after suffering complications from internal bleeding.

The baby was delivered by Caesarean section but pronounced dead shortly after, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The woman, 37-year-old Noa Lipschitz-Shaked of Hod Hasharon, is a mother to triplets.

Rivlin arrives at Elysee Palace for meeting with France’s Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and President Reuven Rivlin wave at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 18, 2021. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and President Reuven Rivlin wave at the Elysee Palace in Paris on March 18, 2021. (Ludovic Marin/AFP)

President Reuven Rivlin arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, where he is being hosted for talks by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Before the meeting, Rivlin penned an op-ed in a French newspaper urging Macron to oppose the International Criminal Court’s probe of alleged Israeli war crimes in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Court extends remand of man suspected of killing 14-year-old son

A court extends the remand of a Kiryat Gan man suspected of stabbing his 14-year-old son to death for eight days.

The court also orders that the suspect undergo a psychological examination to determine if he is fit to stand trial.

Bennett rebuffs Likud minister’s call to pledge loyalty to Netanyahu

Transportation Minister Miri Regev sends Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett a letter for him to sign pledging he will back Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a government after next week’s elections.

Bennett, a former member of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, responds to Regev via text message.

“I was already hoping you would announce your resignation because of the mutations failure at Ben Gurion Airport,” Bennett texts Regev, according to screenshots.

The Yamina chief has been highly critical of Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has not ruled out joining a Likud-led government after the elections as have other rivals of the premier.

Experts criticize UN for excluding Israel and others from blacklist on harming kids in war

UNITED NATIONS — A panel of child rights experts sharply criticizes the UN secretary-general’s decisions on a global blacklist of parties responsible for harming children during conflicts, saying government forces including from Israel, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Saudi-led coalition fighting rebels in Yemen should not have been excluded.

The experts appointed to study the blacklist decisions by Watchlist on Children, an international advocacy group, say in a 37-page report that between 2010 and 2020 at least eight parties to conflicts were found responsible for killing and maiming more than 100 children in a single year but weren’t listed. Six of them were government forces, the panel says.

The report cites “numerous discrepancies and omissions in listing decisions, as well as unwarranted delisting decisions.”

Co-author Yanghee Lee, former chair of the committee that monitors implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, says: “We are calling on the secretary-general to urgently address these problems and commit to hold all countries and groups responsible for violations against children accountable without fear or favor.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric says Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stands by the conclusions and recommendations in the annual report. He says action plans by governments and armed groups to get off the blacklist have produced improvements and changed behavior in some areas.

The eight parties that the experts say should have been included on the blacklist included three in Afghanistan: the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces every year from 2014 to 2020, international forces supporting them in 2010, 2019 and 2020, and Afghan groups affiliated with the Islamic State extremist group in 2016.

The five others the experts say should have been blacklisted were Israeli forces in 2010-2012 and 2017-2020; the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in 2020; Congo’s armed forces in 2018; Nigeria’s security forces in 2018; and Free Syrian Army affiliated groups in 2015.

Greece to take rotating presidency of Holocaust group

ATHENS, Greece — Greece will assume the rotating presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance next month, the foreign ministry says, as yet another Jewish memorial was vandalized overnight.

Foreign ministry spokesman Alexandros Papaioannou says Athens will take over the IHRA presidency on April 1.

“We attach particular importance” to the event, he says, adding that Greece’s first-ever IHRA presidency will focus on education.

Anti-Semitism remains a problem in Greece, whose Jewish community was nearly wiped out during the Holocaust.

The central board of Jewish communities in Greece says a recently completed mural about the Jews of Thessaloniki, 50,000 of whom were exterminated in Nazi death camps, had been vandalized.

In October, several Jewish cemeteries and a Holocaust memorial had also been vandalized after the leaders of Greek neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn were jailed in a landmark trial.

Interior Minister Makis Voridis in 2019 denied anti-Semitic beliefs after a prominent Greek Jewish official said he had a “dark past.”

A self-styled nationalist, Voridis said he had “never been an anti-Semite, though he had “coexisted politically with people who had such unacceptable ideas.”

He is one of at least three former prominent members of the far-right LAOS party to be given posts in the ruling New Democracy party.

Development minister Adonis Georgiadis is also a former LAOS cadre and lawmaker.

Greece has in recent years pursued close ties with Israel as a counter to regional rivals Turkey.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis — whose father first formalized relations with Israel as prime minister in 1990 — last month visited Jerusalem for a tourism deal.

UK regulator: No evidence blood clots caused by AstraZeneca vaccine

LONDON — British regulators says that people should keep getting AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine following its review of data on patients who suffered from blood clots after getting the shot.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency says there’s no evidence that the vaccine causes blood clots in veins. A further review of five reports in the UK of a rare type of clot in the brain is continuing, but the condition, which can occur naturally, has been reported in less than 1 in a million people vaccinated so far and no causal link has been established, the agency says.

“The MHRA’s advice remains that the benefits of the vaccines against COVID-19 continue to outweigh any risks and that the public should continue to get their vaccine when invited to do so,” the agency says.

Health Ministry director: ‘We completely respect the High Court decision’

The director-general of the Health Ministry distances himself from criticism anonymous officials made about the High Court of Justice for scrapping restrictions on the entry of Israeli citizens to the country.

“We completely respect the High Court decision,” Chezy Levy says during a press briefing.

Levy vows to implement the decision, which he says risks letting mutated coronavirus variants into Israel.

France’s Macron: Iran must stop violating the nuclear deal

French President Emmanuel Macron says Iran must cease its violations of the 2015 accord limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

“Iran must stop worsening the nuclear situation that is already serious by accumulating violations of the Vienna accord,” Macron says during a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace with President Reuven Rivlin.

Macron says France wants to revive nuclear talks and calls for full inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities and to address Iran’s missile program.

“Iran must make the expected gestures and behave in a responsible manner,” he says.

Military liaison: Over 105,000 Palestinian laborers have received 1st vaccine dose

A Palestinian worker gets vaccinated by Israeli Magen David Adom staff at the Sha'ar Efraim checkpoint in the West Bank, March 4, 2021 (COGAT)
A Palestinian worker gets vaccinated by Israeli Magen David Adom staff at the Sha'ar Efraim checkpoint in the West Bank, March 4, 2021 (COGAT)

The Defense Ministry’s liaison to the Palestinians reports over 105,000 Palestinian laborers in Israel and West Bank settlements have been vaccinated in recent weeks.

The Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories says the workers will begin receiving the second dose in two weeks.

“This is meaningful news for the Israeli and the Palestinian public health and economy alike,” Brig. Gen. Fares Atila, the head of COGAT’s Civil Administration, says in a statement.

IDF chief to France’s Macron: Lebanon has been taken ‘captive’ by Hezbollah

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi tells French President Emmanuel Macron that Lebanon has been taken “captive” by the Hezbollah terror group.

“Hezbollah today has hundreds of thousands of missiles and rockets located that are in the heart of civilian populations and are deliberately aimed at harming Israeli citizens. The IDF will do everything to prevent this,” Kohavi says to Macron, according to an Israel Defense Forces statement.

The IDF chief, who is accompanying President Reuven Rivlin, warns Israel has thousands of targets picked out in Lebanon.

“We won’t hesitate to attack forcefully,” Kohavi says.

He also says Lebanon is responsible for what happens in its border and will bear “full responsibility” for any Hezbollah attack on Israel.

Ministers expected to approve further easing of virus restrictions

The high-level coronavirus cabinet is expected to vote later this evening on a further rollback of coronavirus restrictions.

The measures, which would take effect Sunday, include allowing more people to participate in mass gatherings such as sporting and cultural events.

EU regulator says AstraZeneca vaccine ‘safe and effective’

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The EU’s drugs regulator says that the AstraZeneca vaccine is “safe and effective” and not linked to an increased risk of blood clots.

“The committee has come to a clear scientific conclusion: This is a safe and effective vaccine,” European Medicines Agency chief Emer Cooke tells a press conference after a probe by the body’s safety committee.

“The committee also concluded that the vaccine is not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events or blood clots.”

Lebanese PM-designate Hariri: Government needed to restore trust, hope

Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri, speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri, speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister-designate says that a government that can restart talks with the International Monetary Fund is the only way to halt the country’s rapid economic collapse, adding there is still opportunity to form such a Cabinet.

Saad Hariri speaks a day after trading barbs with President Michel Aoun over who is to blame for the five-month delay in forming the Cabinet, while the country unravels. The economic and financial crisis roiling Lebanon is the gravest threat to its stability since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990.

Hariri, who was tasked by Aoun to form a Cabinet in October, held an hour-long meeting with the president today, a day after Aoun urged him to form a government immediately or step aside. Hariri in turn challenged the president to step down, saying Aoun had rejected multiple proposals over the past five months.

Hariri says there is still an opportunity for a government to be formed and says he will meet again with Aoun on Monday. He says a government is necessary to restart talks with the IMF to restructure Lebanon’s debts and to restore the confidence of the world community. Talks with the IMF last year failed to reach a deal.

Lebanon’s local currency has been in a free fall since late 2019, losing over 90% of its value. The government defaulted on its foreign debt last year and nearly half the population has been pushed into poverty and unemployment.

Prices of basic goods have increased and inflation has soared. Banks have imposed informal controls on people’s savings, and the Central Bank’s foreign reserves have shrunk in a country dependent on imports.

The outgoing government resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people, wounded more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital.

Ministers okay further easing of virus restrictions

The coronavirus cabinet approves a further easing of coronavirus restrictions starting tomorrow evening.

The new rules allow increased capacity at sporting and cultural events and authorize the use of rapid coronavirus tests at businesses so those who haven’t been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 may enter.

Ministers are also expected to approve restrictions for Passover and Ramadan limiting indoor gatherings to 20 people and outdoor events to 50.

Putin invites Biden to virtual talks after ‘killer’ comment

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin calls on US President Joe Biden to hold virtual talks after the American leader described him as a “killer.”

“I want to invite President Biden to continue our discussion, but on condition that we will do this practically live, as they say, online,” Putin says in televised remarks, suggesting the conversation take place tomorrow or Monday.

Canada says Iranian report on downing of passenger plane ‘doesn’t answer why’

OTTAWA, Ontario — The chair of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board says Iran’s final report on the Ukrainian passenger jet it shot down last year fails to shed light on why it happened.

“The report says what happened, but it doesn’t answer the why,” TSB chair Kathy Fox tells a news conference in Ottawa.

“We believe that the final report issued by Iran yesterday is incomplete,” Fox adds. “It raises more questions than it answers.”

On January 8, 2020, Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 crashed shortly after takeoff from Iran’s capital Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard.

The Islamic Republic admitted three days later that its forces mistakenly shot down the Kiev-bound Boeing 737-800 plane, after firing two missiles.

In a final report, the Iranian Civil Aviation Organisation (CAO) pointed to the missile strikes and the “alertness” of its troops on the ground amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States at the time.

Fox says this “falls short of answering many of the detailed questions about the underlying factors.”

She also laments a lack of detailed information about the Iranian military’s role in the downing, and specificity of the safety actions it has taken to reduce the risk of a repeat occurrence.

“We don’t accept the premise that you can’t delve into the military side to identify what happened,” Fox says, citing previous shootdowns of a Korean jetliner by Russia and of an Iranian passenger aircraft by the United States in the 1980s that were fully investigated.

“The lack of details means we can’t confirm that these (new safety measures) will actually reduce the risks to civil aviation operations within Iran’s airspace,” she says.

Poll: Netanyahu’s bloc 1 seat short of majority if Yamina joins

The Kan public broadcaster releases its final poll ahead of Tuesday’s Knesset elections, predicting both Prime Minister Netanyahu and his rivals will fall short of a majority.

Netanyahu’s Likud is the largest party in the poll with 31 seats, followed by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 19.

The right-wing Yamina and New Hope parties each pick up nine seats, while the majority Arab Joint List and ultra-Orthodox Shas get eight seats apiece. The survey also predicts the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu will receive seven seats, and the center-left Labor and the far-right Religious Zionism five each.

Rounding out the poll are the centrist Blue and White party, left-wing Meretz and Islamist Ra’am with four seats each.

The poll includes 1,406 respondents and has a 2.6 percent margin of error.

ICC gives Israel a month to seek deferral of war crimes probe

The International Criminal Court says it has sent formal notices to Israel and the Palestinian Authority about its impending investigation into possible war crimes, giving them a month to seek deferral by proving they are carrying out their own investigations.

Earlier this month, the ICC announced it would investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel and by Palestinian terrorists following a request by the Palestinians, who joined the court in 2015 after being granted nonmember observer status in the UN General Assembly.

Israel has fiercely condemned the investigation, accusing the ICC of bias and saying it has no jurisdiction since the Palestinians do not have a state. Israel is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens could be subject to arrest abroad if warrants are issued.

The ICC prosecutor’s office confirms in a written statement to The Associated Press that on March 9 the letters were sent to all of the court’s member states and those states and entities that would normally exercise jurisdiction, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli and Palestinian officials decline to comment.

The ICC is expected to focus on the 2014 Gaza war, Israel’s crackdown on often-violent border protests in Hamas-run Gaza in recent years and Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank. The probe will also look at terrorist rocket fire from Gaza onto civilian areas in Israel.

Number of COVID patients in serious condition falls below 550

The number of coronavirus patients in serious condition furthers drops to 549, the lowest it has been since December 24.

The number of active cases stands at 22,028, with 865 people hospitalized with COVID-19 complications. There have been 825,420 infections since the pandemic began, including 1,517 diagnosed since midnight.

The death toll rises to 6,069, with 12 fatalities yesterday and five so far today.

The Health Ministry says 80,039 tests were performed yesterday, 2 percent of which came back positive.

It also says 5,164,853 have received at least one vaccine dose and 4,444,913 are fully vaccinated.

Israel said concerned US-Russia tensions could impact operations in Syria

Officials in Israel are concerned that tensions between the United States and Russia could impact Israeli military operations in Syria, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The report says deliberations were held today on the matter, after US President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “killer.”

Israel has regularly carried out strikes in Syria as part of efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself on the border. Russia is a backer of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war, as is Iran.

In an interview with Channel 13 news, Defense Minister Benny Gantz calls Biden’s remark about Putin “strange and extreme,” before stressing Israel doesn’t wish to get involved in US-Russia ties.

He says Israel has a “clear interest” in maintaining close ties with the United States and that there are “serious work ties” with Russia. Gantz also says he doesn’t believe the spat will undermine Israel’s security interests.

Hundreds protest in Tel Aviv over violent crime in Arab communities

Hundreds of people protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square over violent crime in Arab Israeli communities and what they say is a lack of police action to stem the violence.

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