The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s developments as they unfolded.
Edelstein to boycott torch-lighting ceremony if Netanyahu attends
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, in a letter to Knesset members and parliamentary workers, threatens he could boycott the annual torch-lighting ceremony on Israel’s 70th Independence Day should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insist on attending.
Edelstein (Likud) has been unhappy with Netanyahu’s expected decision to participate, which breaks with a tradition according to which the Knesset speaker is the most senior official at the event.
He has been locked in an argument with Culture Minister Miri Regev over the plan by Israel’s premier to attend the ceremony on Mount Herzl.
In the letter, Edelstein says the ceremony is meant to be strictly apolitical.
“In the event the Knesset is not the sole representative of Israel [at the event], as it is every year, unfortunately, the Knesset will not take part,” he writes.
Egyptian media say election turnout was around 40 percent
Egypt’s pro-government media say preliminary results of this week’s presidential election show a landslide win for President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who faced no serious challenger, and a turnout hovering around 40 percent.
Vote counting began after polls closed late Wednesday, wrapping up three days of voting. Official results are expected on April 2.
Of the 59.7 million registered voters, the Al Masry Al Youm daily says Thursday that around 25 million cast their ballots. Another daily, Al Youm Al Sabea, says some 23 million voted.
Egyptian authorities went to great lengths to bolster turnout in a bid to give the election legitimacy.
Sissi’s only opponent was a little-known politician who made no effort to challenge him. Several other presidential hopefuls were arrested or withdrew from the race under pressure.
Liberman urges Israelis to calm down over Gaza infiltration
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is downplaying a spate of infiltration incidents from Gaza to Israel.
“I see the headlines and the self-flagellation, it’s sheer madness,” he tells the Ynet news website. “Can you totally prevent every mishap? No. Must you turn it into a tragedy? Also no.”
Earlier on Thursday, two Palestinians armed with a knife and wire cutters breached the security fence around Gaza in the fourth such incident in a week, despite the army being on high alert in the area.
French police detain man suspected of trying to ram soldiers
Police have detained a man suspected of trying to ram his car into a group of soldiers jogging near their barracks in southeast France on Thursday, a security source tells AFP.
The National Police says on Twitter that an individual had been taken into custody after an operation at a market square in Grenoble, near the town of Varces-Allieres-et-Risset where the attempted attack occurred.
Police urge Beersheba residents to be on alert amid ‘security incident’
Israel Police sends additional officers to the southern city of Beersheba out of concerns over an unspecified “security incident,” police say.
“The public is asked to be on alert and to dial the 100 call center if they see anything out of the ordinary,” police say in a statement.
— Judah Ari Gross
Italy, Austria, Spain said resisting new Iran sanctions
Italy, Spain, and Austria are resisting pressure to impose fresh sanctions on Iran as European heavyweights France, Germany, and Britain seek to keep the US from withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal in May, Reuters reports.
Paris, Berlin and London were seeking to persuade their EU partners to back sanctions in April against organizations and individuals linked to the Islamic Republic’s missile program, Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah terrorist group, according to the report.
The three European powers were eager to apply the sanctions to placate US President Donald Trump, who has threatened to exit the deal unless it is amended.
But Rome was skeptical the new sanctions would be sufficient to prevent Trump from abandoning the accord, the report says, and was backed by Spain and Austria.
German aid group probes alleged anti-Semitic posts by staff
A German aid organization says it is investigating alleged anti-Semitic comments posted on social media by some of its staff.
The GIZ, whose main client is the German government, says it was alerted to the posts by reports in Israeli media.
The posts by staff working in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, included one featuring the Israel flag with a Nazi swastika beneath the words: “I hate Israel.”
GIZ said it “does not tolerate anti-Semitic statements.” It added that staff members are required to sign a code of conduct that applies to statements made privately, too.
In a statement Thursday, the organization said it’s “currently investigating each individual case and considering disciplinary actions.”
Netanyahu’s health improves, but doctor urges more rest
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels better, but his physician, Dr. Zvi Berkowitz, recommends “several additional days of rest,” the Prime Minister’s Office says.
The prime minister was taken to a Jerusalem hospital on Tuesday evening after suffering from a high fever and coughing. He was discharged several hours later after undergoing a series of tests. Doctors found he was suffering from a viral infection.
— with Raphael Ahren
French PM leads funerals for 4 victims of terror attack
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and senior figures of the French government attend the funerals in southern France Thursday for the four victims of last week’s terrorist gun rampage.
The ceremonies take place Thursday in the quiet Aude region that was the site of a deadly carjacking, gun spree and supermarket hostage-taking.
Philippe speaks to family of the victims and local residents in Trebes as the funeral convoys of Herve Sosna, Christian Medves and Jean Mazieres arrived — and their coffins are put on display in a large square.
Mazieres, 60, was killed by attacker Redouane Lakdim during the carjacking; Medves, 50, was shot in the supermarket, where he worked as a butcher; construction worker Sosna, 65, was a customer in the supermarket.
A private religious ceremony took place afterward for slain gendarme Arnaud Beltrame in nearby Carcassonne, and it will be followed by a burial later in the cemetery of Ferrals-les-Corbieres.
On Wednesday, France held a national homage to Beltrame, a colonel, who was given a posthumous Legion of Honor for his heroism in swapping himself for a hostage and potentially preventing further killings.
Ahead of Gaza march, Israel tells UN: We’ll defend ourselves
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon sends a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the upcoming mass Palestinian “March of Return” on the Gaza-Israel border.
“We will defend ourselves in the face of this violent campaign,” writes Danon, according to Hadashot news.
The IDF chief of staff said on Wednesday over 100 snipers will be stationed on the border and will be authorized to open fire if it is determined that Israeli lives are in danger.
The “March of Return” is set to begin on Friday with “Land Day,” which marks the Israeli government’s expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee on March 30, 1976, and the ensuing demonstrations in which six Arab Israelis were killed. It is also, by coincidence, the eve of the week-long Passover holiday.
Netanyahu speaks to security chiefs ahead of expected Gaza unrest
Ahead of tomorrow’s expected unrest at the Gaza border, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks over the phone with the leaders of Israel’s security establishment, including Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and the heads of the Shin Bet and the National Security Council.
— Raphael Ahren
Israeli diplomats gird for Gaza clashes, say Hamas responsible
Israel’s Foreign Ministry takes to Twitter in anticipation of international criticism on clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border.
“While the campaign is being presented to the world at large as a peaceful enterprise, there is no doubt that this latest Hamas ploy is aimed at igniting a violent confrontation with Israel,” the Foreign Ministry says in reference to planned protests tomorrow.
“As a result, Israel finds itself on the eve of Passover preparing for an array of scenarios, including a violent, deliberate charge on its border,” it says. “And while Israel hopes and aims to avoid violence it will take all necessary steps to prevent any violation of its sovereignty or any threat to its citizens.”
“Israel, of course, has the full right to defend its borders, to protect its citizens and to prevent illegal infiltration into its sovereign territory. Responsibility for any clashes that may arise will thus lie solely with Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations who have manufactured this entire campaign,” the ministry adds.
— with Raphael Ahren
Erekat blasts US envoy, says payments to prisoners won’t stop
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat slams US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, branding him a supporter of Israeli “colonialism,” and ruling out Palestinian cooperation with the US peace efforts.
In a rare interview directly criticizing the Palestinian leadership, Friedman had seemed to indicate that the White House’s patience with PA President Mahmoud Abbas was running out, and had warned that if Abbas refused to negotiate with Israel and the Americans, others would.
Friedman on Thursday clarified comments he made during a media interview.“I was misquoted in various reports stemming from an interview that published today,” Friedman tweeted. “The United States is not seeking ‘to replace’ Mahmoud Abbas. It is for the Palestinian people to choose its leadership.”
“There is no doubt that Mr. Friedman’s behavior and statements are irresponsible and solely guided to advance Israeli colonialism, an enterprise that he has been personally committed to as one of its funders,” says Erekat, referring to past donations by Friedman to settlement-building in Beit El.
“During his time as US Ambassador to Israel, he has worked tirelessly to advocate and legitimize Israeli violations while dehumanizing Palestinians, inciting against the Palestinian national movement, and now even calling for a change of leadership in Palestine,” says Erekat.
Erekat also berates Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for his criticism of the Palestinian Authority over payments to the families of convicted Palestinian terrorists and other prisoners. He says the PA will never give up on these stipends.
“We will not abandon our prisoners. We consider this a moral and legal obligation enshrined by Article 81 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. While Israel will not make these payments, as required by international humanitarian law, Palestine will provide for the families through the Palestinian social welfare system – as any other nation worldwide provides for the maintenance of their citizens,” he says.
His comments come after the United States passes a law to cut PA funding over these payments.
Liberman, “an illegal settler himself, and Friedman, a staunch supporter of Israel’s illegal colonial-settlement activities, have proven to be members of the same camp,” adds Erekat.
“A camp which aims to deny the rights of the Palestinian people, and perpetuate occupation while imposing an Apartheid regime all over Palestine. Mr. Friedman has further confirmed that there is nothing to come out from President Trump’s Middle East efforts that remotely resembles freedom, justice, or peace.”
Belgian secretary of state: No doubt Jerusalem is Israel’s capital
In a departure from Belgium’s official policy, the country’s secretary of state says that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
Philippe de Backer, whose position in the Belgian government is comparable to that of a deputy cabinet minister, identifies Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in an interview published earlier this week for Joods Actueel, the Jewish monthly of Antwerp.
“There is not doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear: it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue. But we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution,” he says.
In December, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel condemned US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The United States intends to move its embassy this year from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
IDF appoints new military liaison to Palestinians
Kamil Abu Rokon is appointed Israel’s next military liaison to the Palestinians, taking over for Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who was served in the position for four years, the army says.
In a ceremony at the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, Abu Rokon is promoted in rank to major general.
He will formally take over for Mordechai after another ceremony sometime in May, the army says.
— Judah Ari Gross
Gazans pitch tents on Israel border ahead of protests
Palestinians in Gaza begin to pitch tents near the border with Israel ahead of a six-week protest camp under the gaze of wary Israeli soldiers.
The protest is dubbed “The Great March of Return” and has the backing of the Gaza Strip’s rulers Hamas.
On Thursday, around 20 family tents were pitched at a site near Erez, alongside two larger community tents for performances including the traditional Palestinian “dabke” dance.
Khaled al-Batsh, the head of the Islamic Jihad terrorist group, says tents would be located 500 meters (yards) from the border, just outside the buffer zone between Gaza and Israel.
Water facilities are being installed and medical teams deployed to allow people to stay for long periods.
Organizers say tens of thousands of people would attend Friday’s protest, although it was not clear how the estimate was reached.
Senior Hamas figure Salah Bardawil says that while protesters might breach the border, they were not planning to do so.
Hamas officials say they will monitor the area beyond the camp sites to prevent protesters going too close to the frontier, at least during the initial days of the protest.
Five main camp sites have been set up, spanning the length of the coastal territory from near the Erez border crossing in the north to Rafah in the far south, near Egypt.
Campers will be within sight of the border, frequently patrolled by Israeli soldiers.
Another organizer, Tahir Sawirki, tells AFP Palestinians will gather Friday in groups representing the towns they left in 1948.
He says tens of thousands of meals would be prepared for more than 100,000 expected participants.
Ex-French president Sarkozy to stand trial for corruption
Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is being ordered to stand trial on charges of corruption and influence peddling.
It is one of multiple corruption cases targeting Sarkozy, and marks the second case so far in which he is being sent to trial. He denies wrongdoing in all of them.
In the latest case, a judicial official says Thursday that judges issued an order for Sarkozy to stand trial on accusations that he tried to illegally get information from a judge about an investigation targeting him. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
The former president, 63, can appeal the order.
In a separate case, Sarkozy was given preliminary charges last week of getting illegal campaign financing in 2007 from late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
IDF opens fire at Palestinian rioters along Gaza border
Israeli troops open fire at a number of Palestinian rioters who tried to damage the security fence around the Gaza Strip, the army says.
According to the army, approximately 200 Palestinians are taking part in violent protests at four main locations along the security fence, lighting fires and throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on the other side.
The soldiers targeted a handful of “main instigators” who were trying to pull down portions of the fence, an army spokesperson says.
There are no immediate reports of injuries by the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
— Judah Ari Gross
France accuses Iran of arming Yemen’s Houthi rebels
France on Thursday accuses Iran of supplying weapons to Houthi rebels waging a three-year fight against a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and rejects Tehran’s denial.
“There is a problem in Yemen: it is that the political process has not begun, that Saudi Arabia feels regularly attacked by the Houthis, who are themselves supplied with arms by Iran,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL radio.
Iran has said it supports the Houthis’ cause in Yemen but has repeatedly denied arming them, despite claims by the United States and Saudi Arabia of evidence of weapon shipments.
Le Drian’s comments come just days before an official visit to France by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose government has threatened Iran with retaliation after Houthi rebels fired seven missiles into Saudia Arabia last weekend.
Germany arrests four Syrians over mosque fire
Four Syrians have been arrested in Germany on suspicion of attempted murder and arson for their alleged roles in a Molotov cocktail attack on a mosque frequented by Turkish Muslims, police say Thursday.
The attack in the southern city of Ulm on March 19 caused only material damage and the eight people inside the building at the time were unharmed, local police say in a joint statement with Stuttgart prosecutors.
The suspects, aged 18 to 27, were arrested on Wednesday. One of the men has already confessed to the crime, according to the statement.
The 3 a.m. attack saw several Molotov cocktails lobbed at the building, one of which started a fire that was quickly put out by police.
Prosecutors say they suspect the attack “may have been politically motivated”, but according to DPA news agency they declined to comment on reports that it was an act of retaliation over the Turkish offensive in the Syrian enclave of Afrin.
“The investigation, including into the motive of the Syrians… is ongoing,” the statement reads.
58% of French say more could be done to prevent terror attacks — poll
More than half of French people believe the government could do more to stop terror attacks, according to a poll published on Thursday, six days after fresh bloodshed in the country.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents say that French President Emmanuel Macron and his administration are not using “all the necessary means in the fight against the terrorist threat in France,” according to the study by the Elabe polling group.
Among the measures that drew the greatest support were expelling foreign nationals on France’s terror watchlist (backed by 80 percent of respondents), and preventing French jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq (78 percent).
These measures, which experts point out would likely face legal challenges, have been championed by the far-right National Front party which also proposes a crackdown on dual nationals convicted of terrorism offenses.
Seven in ten respondents back proposals to strip any dual national jihadist of their French passport, something proposed in 2015 and then abandoned by Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande.
Hamas urges Gazans to ‘remain peaceful’ during border protests
The Hamas terrorist group urges Gazans to “remain peaceful” during the protests at the border with Israel, beginning on Friday.
“Hamas calls for all the Palestinians to effectively take part in the Great March of Return and remain peaceful to achieve the objective of this event,” it says in a statement.
“Hamas praises the resistance of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, occupied Palestine, and diaspora,” the statement says. “It appreciates their sacrifices for the sake of adhering to their rights, maintaining their identity, sticking to their land, resisting all attempts to wipe them out, and rejecting all forms of normalization.”
TV: Bedouin men arrested in Beersheba were not planning terror attack
The two Bedouin men arrested by police in Beersheba after a manhunt were not plotting a terrorist attack, according to Hadashot news.
Citing a preliminary investigation into the case, the TV report says the men were planning to carry out other unspecified criminal activity.
Police had placed the southern Israeli city on high alert earlier on Thursday over the suspected terrorist threat.
Israel to restrict entry of Gaza Christians for Easter
Israeli authorities say they have decided to block most of Gaza’s small Christian community from traveling to Jerusalem for the upcoming Easter holiday, citing security concerns.
COGAT, the defense body that oversees Palestinian civilian concerns, says it will allow only people 55 and older to enter Israel.
COGAT says Thursday the restrictions are needed to prevent people from fleeing and overstaying their stays in Israel.
Wadie Abunassar, a Catholic Church official, called the restrictions “very sad,” adding he hopes Israel would reconsider.
He says Easter is a family holiday focused on events in Jerusalem. He says it is “not reasonable” to allow a father and mother to enter while “leaving their children back in Gaza.”
Russia to expel 60 US diplomats, close a US consulate
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Thursday Moscow would expel 60 US diplomats and close its consulate in Saint Petersburg in a tit-for-tat expulsion over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal.
Lavrov says that the US ambassador had been informed of “retaliatory measures,” saying that “they include the expulsion of the equivalent number of diplomats and our decision to withdraw permission for the functioning of the US consulate general in Saint Petersburg.” Washington earlier ordered the expulsion of 60 diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate general in Seattle.