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

Airline receives first permission under new rules to fly stranded Israelis home

The Israir carrier has been granted permission by the Transport Authority for the first flight bringing stranded Israelis back to Israel following a government decision to reopen Ben Gurion Airport.

The airline will pilot passengers from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv on Saturday night, landing at Ben Gurion on Sunday morning, when the new rules apply.

Yesterday night, the high-level coronavirus cabinet approved a plan to more fully reopen the airport ahead of the upcoming elections, following criticism of the government panel that has been deciding which Israelis may enter the country amid the ongoing closure of the airport.

The move increases the number of Israelis permitted to enter the country to 3,000 per day starting March 7 and scraps the need to get entry permission from the Exceptions Committee.

German intelligence agency probing far-right AfD opposition party

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has put the opposition Alternative for Germany party under observation under suspicion of extreme right sympathies, several local media outlets report.

The move by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, known by the initials BfV, comes more than two years after it announced it was examining public comments by party members and links to extremist groups more closely.

In January 2019, the agency put the youth wing of the party, known as AfD, as well as a party faction linked to a prominent leader in eastern Germany, Bjoern Hoecke, under covert surveillance over extremism allegations.

At the time, the BfV cited the youth organization’s stated goal of creating an ethnically pure country and efforts by Hoecke’s faction — known as “The Wing” — to downplay Germany’s Nazi past. The Wing has also suggested it might pursue “revolutionary” means to achieve its political aims, warranting scrutiny from the BfV, which is tasked with monitoring all extremist organizations in the country.

Police open probe into stone-throwing attack on Palestinian homes, cars

Police open an investigation into an alleged stone-throwing attack in the Palestinian village of Hawarah in which three homes and two cars were targetted.

According to the Yesh Din activism group, there was a family asleep in one of the homes that was damaged during the incident Tuesday night.

The attackers also threw a bottle of paint at one of the buildings, the group says, blaming Israeli settlers for the attack.

Turkish news crew attacked in Mea She’arim

Police say that forces have been called to the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem following an attack on a Turkish news crew.

According to the police, the attackers shattered a window of a car carrying the crew and threw feces into the vehicle.

Officers who arrived at the scene rescued the news team, police say, adding that an investigation has been opened to locate the perpetrators.

Israel says it will start vaccinating Palestinian workers on Sunday

Israel will begin on Sunday a vaccination campaign to inoculate some 120,000 Palestinians who are legally employed in Israeli communities, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians says.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which administers Palestinian civilian affairs, says it will roll out the immunization campaign at border crossings and industrial zones across the West Bank.

Eight dedicated vaccination complexes will be set up for the campaign, COGAT says, with Israeli healthcare workers administering the shots.

Palestinian workers will be eligible with a prior appointment and the presentation of a valid employment license.

A pilot of the program will take place on Thursday, COGAT says.

Syrian pound hits record low as economic crisis worsens

The Syrian pound hits a record low as the war-torn country’s economy continues to tank.

The US dollar is trading on the black market at 4,000 pounds, increasing the misery of many Syrians who have been struggling to make ends meet with a sharp increase in commodity prices. The official price remains 1,256 Syrian pounds to the dollar.

The new banknote of 5000 Syrian pounds, January 24, 2021 (SANA via AP, File)

At the start of the conflict in mid-March 2011, the US dollar was worth 47 Syrian pounds.

The average salary in Syria stands at about 90,000 pounds ($22.50) per month making it difficult for many Syrians to survive. With the crash of the local currency, prices at shops have been changing almost every day.

Global coronavirus death toll passes 2.5 million

The coronavirus has killed at least 2,549,910 people since it emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally compiled from official sources.

The US is the worst-affected country with 516,616 deaths, followed by Brazil (257,361), Mexico (187,187), India (157,346) and Britain (123,296).

Environment minister says Israel has found ship responsible for oil spill

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel says investigators have pinpointed the ship responsible for the massive oil spill that coated Israel’s coastline with tar last month.

“We placed our hands on the criminal ship,” Gamliel says in a tweet, without providing further details on the investigation.

“Our long arm will reach everyone who harms our nature, the sea and our beaches,” she adds.

Tar contamination has affected 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the Mediterranean coastline’s 195 kilometers (121 miles), with tar still washing up on many beaches. It has also polluted beaches in Lebanon.

Gamliel said Monday that the ministry had investigated 35 vessels over recent days.

After multiple delays, Netanyahu said looking to visit Gulf before elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking to visit the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain before the March 23 Knesset elections, Walla news reports.

The trip has already been postponed a number of times.

The Walla report quotes senior Israeli officials saying that efforts are currently underway to set a date for the trip within the next two weeks.

Sources in the Emirates, however, have in recent weeks expressed concern that such a visit would be an intervention in the Israeli elections, the report adds.

ICC prosecutor announces probe into alleged Israeli, Palestinian war crimes

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague announces that she will be opening an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Israel and the Palestinians.

“The investigation will cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that are alleged to have been committed in the Situation since 13 June 2014, the date to which reference is made in the Referral of the Situation to my Office,” says Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in a statement.

The June 13, 2014, date is significant. Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teens in the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank the day before. By asking for an investigation beginning on June 13, the ICC will not look into the killing of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel.

“Any investigation undertaken by the Office will be conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor,” Bensouda says.

“The decision to open an investigation followed a painstaking preliminary examination undertaken by my Office that lasted close to five years,” she adds.

In February, a pre-trial chamber of the ICC determined that The Hague has jurisdiction to open a criminal investigation into Israel and the Palestinians for war crimes alleged to have taken place in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, paving the way for a full investigation after a five-year preliminary probe opened by Bensouda.

Bensouda indicated in 2019 that a criminal investigation, if approved, would focus on the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict (Operation Protective Edge), on Israeli settlement policy and on the Israeli response to protests at the Gaza border. The probe will also likely focus on accusations of war crimes by the Hamas terror group against Israeli civilians.

Gideon Sa’ar: ICC ‘hijacked by sponsors of terror’

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar responds to the announcement of the International Criminal Court that it will open an investigation into alleged Israeli and Palestinian war crimes.

“The ICC has allowed itself to be hijacked by sponsors of terror. This is a shameful day for the cause of justice,” Sa’ar says on Twitter.

“A government led by me will work with our allies and friends around the world to defend our moral army and brave soldiers who risk their lives to keep us safe.”

Liberman: ICC decision ‘screams hypocrisy and anti-Semitism’

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman slams the “delusional decision” by the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into alleged Israeli and Palestinian war crimes.

He says on Twitter that the move “screams hypocrisy and anti-Semitism.”

“Instead of investigating Assad’s actions in Syria or Hamas in Gaza, they are challenging the right of the State of Israel to defend itself,” he says.

Meretz chair blames settlement construction, annexation threats for ICC probe

Responding ton the announcement of the ICC prosecutor, Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz says that “continued construction in the settlements and threats of annexation have turned Israel into a defendant for war crimes.”

“The settlements and the right are dragging Israel to The Hague,” he says in a statement.

“Israel needs a government that will stop construction in the settlements and restart a peace process with the Palestinians,” he adds.

PA welcomes ICC decision to open war crimes probe, offers ‘any assistance required’

The Palestinian Authority welcomes the International Criminal Court’s decision on Wednesday to investigate war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza starting in 2014.

In a statement, Ramallah’s Foreign Ministry indicates that it would be willing to provide “any assistance required… to realize justice for the Palestinian people.”

“This long-awaited step serves Palestine’s tireless endeavor to achieve justice and accountability, which are indispensable foundations for the peace that the Palestinian people demand and deserve,” the PA Foreign Ministry.

“The crimes committed by the leaders of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinian people are continuous, systematic and widespread,” the statement adds.

Hamas, which is likely to be directly implicated in the 2014 war crimes investigation, has yet to comment on the decision. A senior Hamas official did not respond to a request for comment.

Yamina calls ICC ‘anti-Semitic body immersed in hatred of Israel’

Responding to the ICC decision, the Yamina party says, “The court in The Hague is an anti-Semitic body immersed in hatred of Israel that encourages terrorism instead of fighting it.

“While our enemies are firing missiles, placing explosives, stabbing and killing Israelis like animals, the court decides to investigate Israel instead of the child killers and suicide bombers.

“The IDF is the most moral army in the world and will continue to be so. No fake investigation will prevent the State of Israel from protecting its citizens.”

Knesset liaison to ICC says ‘absurd’ for court to claim probe will be impartial

MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, the “Knesset Liaison on Matters Concerning the International Criminal Court,” says the claim from the ICC prosecutor that the investigation into alleged war crimes will be “conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favor,” is “absurd.”

She says the decision comes “after ignoring renowned legal scholars, international legal principles, and amici briefs of seven governments, and instead favoring information provided by terror-tied NGOs and non-legally binding UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council Resolutions.”

“All trustees of international law and human rights, as well as ICC Member States and donors, must recognize and address the harm this decision causes to the foundational principles of the Rome Statute and its intended mandate, undermining the ability and responsibility to serve as a court of last resort for victims of the most heinous crimes needing its protection,” Cotler-Wunsh says.

Religious Zionism party says ICC won’t stop annexation or new settlements

The right-wing Religious Zionism party says in response to the ICC probe that “no anti-Semitic decision will succeed in severing the Jewish and historical connection of the people of Israel to their land throughout Israel, and in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] in particular.”

“Please God, after the election, we will establish a true right-wing government that will continue to ensure that Jews settle in Judea and Samaria, as they have done for thousands of years,” the party says.

“In spite of the hatred of the haters of Israel, we will regulate the new settlements and impose sovereignty, and no anti-Semitic investigation will prevent this.”

PM Netanyahu on ICC probe: ‘The State of Israel is under attack’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that the ICC decision to open an investigation into Israel is “the epitome of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy.”

“The State of Israel is under attack tonight,” he says.

“The court set up to prevent the recurrence of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jewish people is now turning against the state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu charges. “Of course, it does not say a word against Iran, Syria and other dictatorships that are committing real war crimes.”

The prime minister promises to act “to reverse the scandalous decision.”

Hamas welcomes ICC probe, defends own actions as ‘legitimate resistance’

Hamas welcomes the decision by the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza, the terror group says in a statement to Reuters.

Hamas, however, is directly implicated in the war crimes the tribunal seeks to investigate.

In its statement, a Hamas spokesperson defended its actions as “legitimate resistance.”

President Rivlin slams ‘scandalous’ ICC decision to open probe

President Reuven Rivlin says, “The decision of the International Criminal Court at the Hague to commence investigations against the State of Israel is scandalous.”

“We will not accept claims against the exercise of our right and our obligation to defend our citizens. The State of Israel is a strong, Jewish and democratic state that knows how to defend itself and to investigate itself when necessary,” he stresses in a statement.

“We are proud of our soldiers, our sons and daughters, the essence of our people, who stand guard for their country generation after generation, a defensive wall against all those who seek our harm,” Rivlin says. “We will stand guard to ensure that they are not harmed because of this decision.”

Human Rights Watch welcomes ICC probe

Human Rights Watch welcomes the ICC decision as a step toward justice for Israeli and Palestinian victims.

“The court’s crowded docket shouldn’t deter the prosecutor’s office from doggedly pursuing cases against anyone credibly implicated in such crimes,” says Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

“All eyes will also be on the next prosecutor Karim Khan to pick up the baton and expeditiously move forward while demonstrating firm independence in seeking to hold even the most powerful to account,” Jarrah adds. “ICC member countries should stand ready to fiercely protect the court’s work from any political pressure.”

Foreign Minister Ashkenazi: ICC probe decision ‘an act of moral and legal bankruptcy’

Foreign Minister Gabi Askenazi calls the ICC decision to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza “an act of moral and legal bankruptcy,” and calls on Israeli allies to reject it.

He slams the move as a “political decision of a prosecutor at the end of her term, and an attempt to set priorities for her successor, to turn the tribunal into a tool in the hands of extremists and give backing to terrorist organizations and anti-Semitic bodies.”

He says the court has become “a biased institution that has lost all legitimacy, and operates as a political and non-judicial body.”

Ashkenazi says, “The fact that the murderous terrorist organization, Hamas, welcomes the decision, indicates more than anything that it has no moral validity.”

“The prosecutor’s decision will only contribute to the polarization between the sides, and alienates the dialogue necessary for the resolution of the dispute,” he says. “We call on countries that see the importance of protecting the international legal system from politicization to reject the prosecutor’s decision and not cooperate with it.”

Fatah deputy chief calls ICC probe a ‘tremendous victory’

Fatah deputy chief Mahmoud al-Aloul calls the decision by the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza a “tremendous victory.”

“This is a big day! A tremendous victory for Palestine and international justice! We call upon all governments to cooperate and not to join any campaign to deny our people of the inalienable right to justice,” al-Aloul writes in a tweet.

Coronavirus czar says 4th lockdown ‘absolutely possible’

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says that a fourth national lockdown is “absolutely possible” despite Israel’s vast vaccination campaign.

Speaking with Channel 12 news, Ash says the decision to reopen Ben Gurion Airport to allow Israelis into the country to vote in the March 23 elections was “far from ideal” and “brings with it the risk that virus variants will come into Israel.”

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash at a vaccination center in Herzliya, December 20, 2020 (Flash90)

He says the next few weeks may see an increase in virus rates due to the reopening of the economy and last week’s Purim festival.

“We have a few critical weeks ahead of us. We will have to see if there is an increase in morbidity. It’s absolutely possible that we will see more seriously ill, we may need to impose further restrictions, and we may even have to impose another lockdown,” he says.

US police warn of militant plot to ‘breach’ Capitol on March 4

US Capitol Police say they have bolstered security in Washington after intelligence uncovered a “possible plot to breach the Capitol” on March 4, a day that holds significance for conspiracy-believing supporters of former president Donald Trump.

“We have obtained intelligence that shows a possible plot to breach the Capitol by an identified militia group on Thursday, March 4,” the US Capitol Police say in a statement, nearly two months after a deadly riot by Trump supporters shook the citadel of American democracy.

“We have already made significant security upgrades to include establishing a physical structure and increasing manpower to ensure the protection of Congress, the public and our police officers,” the police force adds.

Newsweek ranks Israel’s Sheba Medical Center among top 10 hospitals worldwide

Israel’s Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan has been listed by Newsweek as one of the world’s top 10 hospitals for the third year in a row.

The Israeli hospital ranked No. 10 out of 200 hospitals on the global list, moving down one slot from 2020.

Newsweek worked with Statista Inc., a market research and consumer data company, to develop the ranking of the world’s best hospitals.

In 1st major speech, Blinken overlooks Israel, Iran in foreign policy priorities

In his first major address as US secretary of state, Antony Blinken lists out the top eight foreign policy issues of the Biden administration, none of which include Israel or even the Iran nuclear threat.

Blinken stresses the need to fight the pandemic, address climate change, advocate for democracy and human rights, among other issues.

“These are the eight top priorities of the Biden administration. You may notice some things about that list. First, important items are not on it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to us or that we won’t work hard on them,” Blinken says.

“Indeed, I look forward to setting out what we’ll do on other vital pieces of our foreign policy in the days and weeks ahead. But these priorities are the most urgent, the ones on which we must make swift and sustained progress. They’re also all simultaneously domestic and foreign issues and we’ve got to approach them that way or else we’ll fall short,” he explains.

While he asserts that “diplomacy, not military action will always come first,” the Biden administration “will never hesitate to use force when American lives and vital interests are at stake.”

“That’s why President Biden authorized an airstrike last week against Iranian-backed militia groups targeting US forces in Iraq,” he says.

“But in that case and in future cases when we must take military action, we will do so only when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable, consistent with our values and laws and with the informed consent of the American people. And we’ll do it together with American diplomacy.”

IDF chief of staff says army won’t be fazed by ICC probe

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Aviv Kochavi responds to the ICC decision to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

“We will not allow any foreign institution without authority to intervene in our activities for the defense of Israel, and certainly not to put those serving in the IDF at legal risk,” Kochavi says in a statement.

Defense Minister Gantz: ICC probe rewards terrorism, conflict can only be resolved by negotiations

Defense Minister Gantz, speaking at an IDF graduation ceremony, says the decision to open an ICC investigation against Israel “rewards terrorism and terror organizations.”

“Our enemies act unethically, jeopardizing civilians. Hamas and Hezbollah hide missiles in people’s cellars and yards, using their citizens as human shields.
And while our enemies trample upon their people’s basic rights and while there are regular and horrific violations of human rights around the world, the ICC prosecutor at The Hague has decided to launch an investigation against Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East,” he says.

“It is a decision that undermines the protection of regional stability and human life.
Israel has strong, independent investigative bodies and some of the highest moral standards in the world,” Gantz stresses.

He says that “the Palestinians need to internalize the fact that the conflict between us can only be resolved by direct negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The courts aren’t the solution, and The Hague certainly isn’t.”

“We will keep fighting to protect our citizens, wherever necessary, and keep waging a legal and diplomatic battle against the ICC’s outrageous and poor decision. And we will fully back IDF soldiers and commanders, all of whom will continue to scrupulously and faithfully fulfill their duty,” he says.

Environment minister says oil spill was terrorist attack linked to Iran

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel says that the oil spill that has coated Israel’s coast with tar was an act of “environmental terrorism” that appears to be linked to Iran.

“After limiting the number of suspects in the incident, we discovered that it was not just an environmental crime, but environmental terrorism,” she says on Twitter.

“A pirate ship owned by a Libyan company that came from Iran is responsible for the environmental attack,” she says.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is currently holding a press conference with more details on the revelation.

TV: Defense establishment ‘does not share assessment’ of environmental terror attack

After the Environmental Protection Ministry said the oil spill that coated Israel’s coast with tar was caused by “environmental terrorism” linked to Iran, Channel 13 news reports that Israel’s defense establishment “does not share this assessment.”

The channel notes that it is “striking” that neither the Mossad nor the defense establishment were involved in the reaching of the conclusion announced by Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel.

Environment ministry says oil spill was ‘either a deliberate leak or a fault’

In a press briefing, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel and ministry director-general Rani Amir provide further details on the ministry’s claim that the oil spill was “environmental terrorism” linked to Iran.

Gamliel says the “Emerald” tanker, a 19-year-old Libyan ship sailing under the Panama flag and carrying crude oil from Iran to Syria was responsible for the spill.

“We will sue for compensation in the name of all the citizens of Israel for damage to health, nature, flora and fauna,” she says, pointing the finger at the Islamic Republic.

Amir says the ministry believed the aim was to send crude oil illegally from Iran to Syria and maybe other countries.

He says the ship, which has not been in the area for eight years, spent several days around the port of Latakia last month transferring the crude oil to smaller ships.

“We think the leak that affected us was not during the transfer of oil from Emerald to smaller ships but either a deliberate leak, that is to say terror, or a fault,” he says.

After exiting Egyptian waters, it changed its flag from Maltese to Panamiain and turned off its GPS in an effort to cover its tracks, Amir charges.

— with Sue Surkes

Eight injured in ‘suspected terrorist’ stabbings in Sweden

A man in his twenties attacked eight people with a “sharp object,” seriously injuring two, in the Swedish city of Vetlanda on Wednesday afternoon, police say.

The assailant was taken to hospital after being shot in the leg by police when he was taken into custody, following the attack in the southern Swedish city in mid-afternoon.

Police originally treated the incident as “attempted murder” but later changed it, in a statement, to a “suspected terrorist crime.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin considering run for New York governor

Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Jewish Republicans in the US House of Representatives, is considering a run for New York governor in light of scandals engulfing incumbent Andrew Cuomo.

“After a lot of people reached out to me in recent days and weeks, and after discussing it at length with my wife and daughters, I am now actively exploring a run for governor of New York against Andrew Cuomo in 2022,” Zeldin tells Newsday.

US Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas, April 6, 2019. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The newspaper quotes a number of Republican state officials as welcoming the news, noting that Zeldin won his Long Island district handily in the last election and is adept at obtaining federal funding for the state.

There is speculation that Cuomo may resign. In that case, the Democratic lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, would take his job.

Yeshiva University men’s basketball rides 35-game winning streak

Yeshiva University’s men’s basketball team is riding a 35-game winning streak, picking up from last season when the Maccabees reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA’s Division III national tournament before the pandemic shut down the rest of the event.

The unbeaten streak is the third-longest in Division III men’s basketball history, and the longest among all current NCAA Division I, II and III teams. Y.U., the Modern Orthodox flagship university in Manhattan, has started the 2020-21 season at 6-0 and is ranked No. 4 in the Men’s National Poll. The Maccabees, the defending Skyline Conference champion, haven’t lost since the opening game of the previous campaign.

Coach Elliot Steinmetz instructs his Yeshiva University men’s basketball team during its historic 2019-20 season. (Y.U. Athletics)

For all its promise, the team will be denied the chance for a tournament title for the second season in a row — due to low participation numbers among member schools, NCAA Division III winter championships are canceled for the 2020-21 academic year.

Cuomo says won’t resign over sexual harassment allegations

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says he will not quit over sexual harassment allegations made against him by three women.

“I’m not going to resign,” Cuomo tells reporters, in his first appearance since the accusations came to light.

The governor apologizes for any “hurt” he had caused but asked New Yorkers to await the outcome of an independent investigation into his conduct.

Police arrest 2 for selling used COVID vaccine vials overseas

Police detain two Israelis on suspicion of selling used vials of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine to buyers overseas.

The two central Israel residents, aged 45 and 19, are suspected of negligent care with a medication, violating the pharmacists’ ordinance and stealing from an employer.

Dozens of empty vials were found during a search of the suspect’s home, police say.
Each bottle could fetch $100, according to a police statement, which adds that investigators were aware of at least nine vials sold to buyers in the US, Italy and France.
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