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Hamas claims rockets fired at central Israel were self-activated

Member of terror group says its military wing was put on heightened war footing in light of Israel’s ‘determination to carry out a hostile act’ before elections

A rocket from the Gaza Strip that struck a home in the central Israeli town of Mishmeret on March 25, 2019. (Israel Police)
A rocket from the Gaza Strip that struck a home in the central Israeli town of Mishmeret on March 25, 2019. (Israel Police)

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

Senior UAE official calls for ‘strategic-shift’ in Arab-Israel relations

A senior official of the United Arab Emirates appears to advocate for closer ties to Israel, saying that Arab world’s decades-old decision to boycott the Jewish state was a mistake.

“Many, many years ago, when there was an Arab decision not to have contact with Israel, that was a very, very wrong decision, looking back,” Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tells the UAE-based The National newspaper in an interview.

“Because clearly, you have to really dissect and divide between having a political issue and keeping your lines of communication open.”

Gargash says a “strategic shift” was needed for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, noting that in 15-20 years a two-state solution will have become impractical, and a unitary state where Jews and Arabs have equal rights will be the only realistic possibility.

— Raphael Ahren

Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash speaks to journalists in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

German band Rammstein sparks fury with ‘repulsive’ Holocaust clip

BERLIN — German hardrock band Rammstein has sparked protests from politicians, historians and Jewish groups with a video showing band members dressed as concentration camp prisoners with nooses around their necks.

Critics accuse the Berlin-based group of a cynical publicity stunt playing with Nazi-era imagery to generate media hype and online clicks for their new single.

No strangers to controversy, the band has long employed dark militaristic imagery and in a 1998 video used footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936 Nazi propaganda film “Olympia.”

Frontman Till Lindemann, 56, asked in a 2006 interview whether the band would again dabble in Nazi themes, said: “No. Because I am fed up with allegations of being a rightwing band.”

However, in the new promotional clip, the band members are dressed in black-and-white striped concentration camp garb and seemingly awaiting their execution by hanging.

Lindemann is shown bleeding from a facial cut and guitarist Paul Landers, 54, wears a Star of David.

At the end of the 35-second clip, the song title “Deutschland” (Germany) appears in Gothic letters.

Bild quotes a line-up of politicians who voiced anger and disgust, with Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn labelling it “a new form of desecration of the dead.”

Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein calls it “a tasteless exploitation of artistic freedom” that “represents the transgression of a red line.”


Trump says FBI, Justice Department to review Smollett case

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump announces Thursday that the FBI and Justice Department will review Illinois prosecutors’ decision to drop all charges against a US television actor accused of fabricating a hate crime.

Calling the Chicago case involving “Empire” star Jussie Smollett “outrageous,” Trump says: “It is an embarrassment to our Nation!”

Prosecutors said they had shelved all 16 felony charges against Smollett in exchange for an agreement that he carry out community service and forfeit a $10,000 bond payment.

But Smollett’s lawyers claimed there was no such agreement, saying the state simply “dismissed the charges,” and that the actor was the victim of a rush to judgment.

The 36-year-old, one of the main cast members on Fox musical drama “Empire” alongside Taraji P. Henson, was accused of masterminding a hoax attack in downtown Chicago to gain publicity and secure a bigger paycheck.


Jussie Smollett speaks with the media after his court appearance at Leighton Courthouse on March 26, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images/AFP)

Suspicious balloon found in field near Gaza area community

A suspicious balloon apparently flown from the Gaza Strip is found in a field near a farming community in southern Israel, according to the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council.

A spokeswoman for the council says the incident is “under treatment.”

Border cop injured in suspected car-ramming outside Jerusalem

A Border Police officer was lightly injured in a suspected car-ramming at the Qalandiya checkpoint outside Jerusalem, according to police.

Police say the driver of the vehicle managed to flee the scene.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service says its medics are treating a “pedestrian” near Qalandiya with injuries to his head and limbs.

— Jacob Magid

J Street slams Netanyahu for sharing clip of him ‘humiliating’ Obama

The dovish lobby group J Street condemns Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for sharing a video of him “humiliating” former US president Barack Obama.

“Netanyahu apparently decided to destroy the remaining support his government has in the Democratic Party. Instead of thanking President Obama for signing the largest ever [military] aid package for Israel, Netanyahu takes prides in the lack of respect he showed Obama,” Yael Patir, the head of J Street Israel, says in a statement.

“This video is unnecessary and even more severely is devastating to bipartisan American support for Israel,” adds Patir, whose group was a vocal supporter of the Obama administration.

The video clip, which was taken from the PBS documentary “Netanyahu at War,” shows footage from the contentious 2011 Oval Office meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, with the narrator saying the prime minister “lectured” the US president on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli drone fires at Gazans launching incendiary balloons

An Israeli drone shot at a group of Palestinians launching balloon-borne incendiary devices into Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, injuring four of them, the army confirms.

A number of airborne arson and explosive devices have landed in Israeli fields around the Gaza Strip throughout the day.

— Judah Ari Gross

Netanyahu orders army to be ready for ‘wide-scale campaign’ in Gaza

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has instructed the army to be ready for a “wide-scale campaign” in the Gaza Strip ahead of major clashes expected over the weekend.

“We’re tightening the security ring around the Gaza Strip,” he says at an event in northern Israel after visiting troops on the Gaza border.

“Citizens of Israel should know that if we must we’ll enter [Gaza] strong and confident, after we’ve exhausted all the other possibilities,” adds Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.

The comments come as the army prepares for large riots along the security fence over the weekend as Palestinians mark one year since the start of the “March of Return” protests and after Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza engaged in intense fighting earlier in the week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with an IDF officer near the border with the Gaza Strip on March 28, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Netanyahu also addresses tensions on the northern border in the wake of a strike attributed to Israel in Syria on targets linked to Iran.

“Iran is constantly trying to bring very advanced and very deadly long-range precision missiles into Syria. We’re not prepared to accept this and our operations against Iran’s military entrenchment efforts in Syria — to introduce advanced weaponry — continue all the time,” he says.

Egyptian mediators head to Israel for talks on Gaza ceasefire deal

Egyptian mediators are heading to Israel to discuss a potential ceasefire plan with Hamas to end hostilities in the Gaza Strip that began earlier this week.

Three Hamas officials familiar with the negotiations say that the Egyptians offered Hamas a series of measures to ease the Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Gaza. In exchange, Hamas would have to pledge to halt rocket fire and keep protests along the Israeli border under control.

The officials say the deal would only take effect after a planned mass demonstration along the Israeli border. They speak on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were ongoing. One of the officials describes the atmosphere as positive.

Another official says the Egyptians were discussing the proposal with Israel this afternoon.

There is no immediate Israeli comment.

— AP

Video said to show damage from Syria strike attributed to Israel

UN says 40 children killed in year of Gaza clashes

Around 40 children have been killed and many injured in one year of violent demonstrations along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, the UN says Thursday, calling for an “urgent de-escalation.”

Thousands of Palestinians have gathered at least weekly along the border in protests that have led to deadly clashes with the Israeli military.

Around 40 children have been killed in the protests and “nearly 3,000 others have been hospitalized with injuries, many leading to life-long disabilities,” the UN children’s agency (UNICEF) says.

“UNICEF reiterates its outrage at the very high numbers of children who have been killed and injured as a result of armed conflict 2018,” says UNICEF’s Middle East director Geert Cappelaere.

He calls on both sides to “ensure children are not targeted.”

“Exploiting children’s lack of sense of purpose and vulnerabilities or enlisting them into violence are violations of children’s rights.”

Israel says its response is necessary to defend the border and accuses Hamas, with whom it has fought three wars, of orchestrating violence there.

A mass border protest planned for Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the demonstrations has raised fears of further tensions.


Army says troops drilling for expected weekend of violence

The Israeli military says it is readying itself for the protests along the Gaza border planned for Saturday, Palestinians’ Land Day, and the outbreak of violence that is feared to coincide with them.

“IDF troops have completed operational preparations for the events of Land Day in the southern region and are continuing to increase preparedness for a possible escalation of violence caused by violent and terrorist acts during [the protests],” the army says in a statement.

Ahead of the protests and riots expected for Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces deployed three additional brigades to the Gaza Division, along with an artillery battalion, and called up reservists from air defense and other select units.

The military has also canceled weekend leave for all combat soldiers stationed in the Southern Command.

“The troops are receiving briefings and conducting preparedness checks and exercises simulating potential scenarios,” the military says.

Throughout the day IDF chief Aviv Kohavi has been “holding situational assessments, discussions of possible scenarios and approving operational plans,” the army says.

Kohavi also ordered that all preparations be completed by tomorrow.

— Judah Ari Gross

Brazil’s Bolsonaro backtracks on Jerusalem embassy move

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro walks back his promise to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Bolsonaro tells reporters he is instead considering opening a “business office” in the city, according to Reuters.

The reversal comes ahead of the far-right Brazilian leader’s planned visit to Israel next week.

Bolsonaro promised to move Brazil’s embassy to Jerusalem while campaigning last year and just days after his election said it was not a matter of if but when. His administration has since softened its stance over concerns the move could damage Brazil’s ties with Muslim states and harm exports of halal meat.

In this photo from December 28, 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is welcomed by Brazil’s then president-elect Jair Bolsonaro at the Copacabana fort in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Leo Correa/Pool/AFP)

NY opioid lawsuit hits billionaire family behind OxyContin

NEW YORK — New York on Thursday sues the billionaire family behind OxyContin, joining a growing list of state and local governments alleging the drugmaker sparked the nation’s opioid crisis by putting hunger for profits over patient safety.

The state, which averages nine opioid-related deaths per day, amends an existing lawsuit against pill maker Purdue Pharma to add members of its controlling Sackler family as defendants. The state also adds as defendants five other companies that produce opioid painkillers and, in what New York Attorney General Letitia James called a novelty, four drug distributors.

“This is an extensive lawsuit that leaves no stone unturned,” James, a Democrat, says at a news conference.

The lawsuit seeks penalties and damages that could add up to tens of millions of dollars and a dedicated fund to curb the opioid epidemic. It also seeks to have the companies stripped of their licenses and barred from marketing and distributing painkillers in New York until they abide by strict safeguards.

The companies, the lawsuit says, deliberately betrayed their duties under state drug laws “in order to profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.”

The lawsuit describes the opioid epidemic as a “statewide catastrophe.”

The announcement of New York’s expanded lawsuit came two days after Purdue and the Sacklers, who are Jewish, agreed to pay $270 million to the state of Oklahoma. It was the first settlement in a recent wave of nearly 2,000 lawsuits that the company says could push it into bankruptcy. In settling the case, Purdue denied any wrongdoing.

— AP

In this photo from August 17, 2018, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Connecticut. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Poll: Likud, Blue and White in dead heat as election day nears

A television poll puts the ruling Likud Party in a dead heat with the Blue and White faction at 30 Knesset seats apiece, less than two weeks ahead of national election on April 9.

Blue and White, an alliance of ex-military chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, has seen its lead over Likud in polls gradually slip since its formation last month.

Following Blue and White and Likud in the Channel 13 survey was the opposition Labor Party with 10 seats; the Union of Right-Wing Parties, United Torah Judaism, Zehut and Hadash-Ta’al with seven seats each; the New Right and Meretz with five seats; and Kulanu, Shas and Ra’am-Balad bringing up the rear with four seats apiece.

Asked who was better suited to be prime minister, 51 percent of poll respondents say incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, versus 36% who picked Gantz.

Egyptian mediators said to return to Gaza as truce negotiations continue

Egyptian mediators have returned to the Gaza Strip as they continue efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian enclave’s Hamas rulers, according to local reports.

The Egyptian-mediated truce negotiations come ahead of expected heavy clashes over the weekend on the Gaza border, as residents of the Strip mark the anniversary of the March of Return protests and on the heels of fighting earlier in the week between Israel and Palestinian terror groups.

Palestinians reportedly damage Gaza border fence

A group of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip damage the security fence separating the coastal enclave from Israel, according to Hebrew media reports.

Channel 13 says the Palestinians fled after Israeli troops fired warning shots.

Gantz appears with bodyguard following threats on social media

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz was accompanied on a visit to Jerusalem today by a bodyguard following threats against the former military chief of staff on social media.

The development comes after Channel 12 news earlier this week quoted unnamed associates of Gantz warning of “grave incitement” against the prime ministerial hopeful on social media.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas claims rockets fired at central Israel were self-activated

A senior member of Hamas’ military wing says rockets recently fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel launched on their own due to the terror group’s heightened war footing.

“The early, automatic activation of the rockets from Gaza was the result of a decision of the resistance’s leadership to heighten its fighting preparedness,” the unnamed Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades official tells Al-Jazeera.

“We decided to bolster our fighting preparedness after the occupation’s determination to carry out a hostile act before the elections came to light,” the official adds.

Regional council denies residents asked to leave their homes over Gaza riots

A spokesperson for the southern Israeli Eshkol region denies a report on the Kan news broadcaster claiming residents of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom were asked to leave their homes out of concerns over violence along the border nearby expected for this weekend.

According to the official, residents of Kerem Shalom — one of the Israeli communities closest to the Gaza border — had been offered a free weekend away by the Eshkol Regional Council, but not out of fears regarding this upcoming weekend, rather because of the events of last weekend, when especially loud night-time riots kept some residents from sleeping.

Hardly any Kerem Shalom residents accepted the offer for the weekend getaway, the Eshkol spokesperson says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Illustrative: Israeli security forces are deployed near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom on the Israeli border with the southern Gaza Strip as smoke billows from tires burnt by Palestinians on April 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Blasts heard in south as Gazans set off explosives near border

Night-time “confusion units” return to the Gaza border, setting off large explosive devices along the security fence, which can be heard throughout the nearby Israeli communities.

On a nightly basis, these groups have staged riots along the border aimed at both disturbing the Israeli civilians living near the Strip and distracting Israeli troops stationed along the border.

A video from the Israeli side of the border shows the moment when one of these explosives is detonated, triggering a massive fireball and large bang.

— Judah Ari Gross

East Jerusalem man arrested for hitting border cop with car

An East Jerusalem man was arrested on suspicion of striking a Border Police officer with his car at the Qalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem, police said.

The suspect was turned over for questioning following his arrest.

Police early said the incident appeared to be criminal and not nationalistic – the term generally used for Palestinian terrorism.

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