The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they happened.
Meretz MK Yair Golan says he had spoken with fellow party member Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi this week and she didn’t give any indication of her pending decision to resign from the Knesest.
“This is evidence of a lack of a basic understanding of politics. I call on her to reverse this fatal decision,” Golan is quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster.
The Senate has voted to confirm the appointment of Barbara Leaf to serve as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
Leaf was nominated by US President Joe Biden last April, but confirmation hearings and votes were repeatedly blocked by Republican senators.
In the meantime, Leaf served as senior director for Middle East and North Africa Affairs on the White House National Security Council, a post that did not require Senate confirmation.
A longtime diplomat, she was US ambassador to the UAE during the Trump administration.
Fifty-four senators voted in favor of her confirmation, with Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, Susan Collins, Rob Portman and Mitt Romney joining the Democratic caucus in supporting Leaf. Forty-four GOP senators voted against confirming Biden’s nominee.
Leaf will replace Yael Lempert, who has been serving as acting assistant secretary for the past year, recently playing an active role in US efforts to de-escalate tensions in Jerusalem. Lempert is expected to continue in the office, serving as Leaf’s deputy.
It is not immediately clear whether a replacement will be named for Leaf in the NSC, where she worked under Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Brett McGurk.
The US is “sharply protesting” new Defense Ministry rules that will sharply limit the number of student visas for foreigners wishing to study at Palestinian universities, Channel 12 news reports.
According to the channel, which does not cite a source for the information, US officials claim the new rules, set to go into effect in July, will restrict Americans’ freedom of movement and freedom to study at institutions of their choice.
Some US officials have hinted that the dispute could wind up damaging Israel’s bid for visa-free travel to the US, Channel 12 claims.
The US embassy is quoted telling the channel that it is discussing the directive with Israeli officials and encouraging further discussion before it is implemented. It refuses to comment on the reported visa waiver threat.
Organizers have called for the first batch of pilgrims to leave Mount Meron’s Lag B’Omer festivities, in order to clear space for new people to enter, a key test of new safety rules meant to avoid overcrowding.
“Please exit slowly and carefully,” an announcer says over the sound system, making the announcement in both Hebrew and Yiddish.
To prevent the types of dangerously large crowds that were seen in previous years, organizers imposed a strictly enforced limit of 16,000 people on the mount at any given time, letting new people up only when others leave.
After the initial calls are unheeded and pilgrims continue to dance, the announcer again asks for people to leave. “Stop the circles. Stop the circles. Please leave,” he says.
The announcer adds that to ensure “modesty,” the women on Mount Meron are asked to wait until the men have left before they make their way off the site.
A pallbearer beaten by police during the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last week has been arrested by Israel, his lawyer says.
Khaldoon Nijm says his client Amro Abu Khdair was arrested on Monday, though he has not been told what he is being charged with.
The arrest was first reported Wednesday by Reuters. Nijm confirmed the arrest to The Times of Israel.
Police tell Reuters that Abu Khdair was arrested, but say it is unrelated to the Friday funeral, during which baton-wielding cops scuffled with mourners, at one point nearly causing the casket to fall.
Police initially said that the pallbearers had stolen the casket against the family’s wishes and the cops were stopping them, a claim disputed by those present. Authorities later agreed to open a probe into the incident.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this post.
The new security precautions in place on Mount Meron this year are being met with reluctant acceptance among pilgrims, including the thousands who were kept out of the event complex for the start of the festivities.
After 45 people were crushed to death last year at the event, authorities severely limited the number of attendees, from over 100,000 in some years to a strict 16,000 at one time this year, on four-hour timed tickets.
At one barricade at the entrance to the site, dozens of men and women grumbled as police officers and private security guards blocked their entrance, due to the complex being at full capacity.
“I was here last year. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Just wait and as soon as we can let you in, we will. Please don’t fight us,” one officer, Naor Siso, tells those waiting.
One of them responds, accepting Siso’s request, albeit with what could be seen as a tacit threat.
“There are dozens of us here. If we wanted to, we could send this barricade flying. We’re not doing that,” he says.
The strict safety precautions have so far prevented any serious injuries.
According to the Magen David Adom ambulance service says that there have been no significant incidents requiring medical treatment, though a few people required care after feeling dehydrated.
The United States has reopened its embassy in Kyiv after closing it for three months due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the State Department says.
“The Ukrainian people, with our security assistance, have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the embassy once again,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken says in a statement.
The State Department closed the embassy in Kyiv on February 14, 10 days before Russian troops poured over the border in a long-anticipated effort to oust the Ukraine government and install one more in line with Moscow.
US diplomats continued to offer services from the far-west city of Lviv, at times staying overnight in neighboring Poland due to security concerns.
The return to Kyiv comes weeks after Ukraine forces soundly defeated Russian efforts to seize control of northern Ukraine and the capital, and the war became centered in the east and south of the country.
“As we take this momentous step, we have put forward additional measures to increase the safety of our colleagues who are returning to Kyiv and have enhanced our security measures and protocols,” says Blinken.
A man has been sentenced on appeal to 13 months in prison for a tweet threatening former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Beersheba resident Asher Ben David was initially sentenced to eight months of community service and an NIS 1,500 ($445) fine, but Beersheba District Court agreed with the prosecution that the magistrate’s court decision had been too lenient.
Ben David has admitted that in 2020, he tweeted “Does anyone know about preparations for assassinating the prime minister? Does someone know… I’d love to take part… it seems that the time has come, I think we’re up to our necks in it.”
The court ruling came as police announced that they would indict a woman accused of sending threatening notes to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his family.
“Everyone hiding behind a keyboard should know before they dare spewing comments like this and putting them in the public sphere that they should expect a harsh punishment and jail time,” the prosecution argued, according to Channel 12 news.
The head of the Boyan Hassidic sect has lit the ceremonial bonfire on Mount Meron by the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, kicking off the festivities of Lag B’Omer for the 16,000 pilgrims currently allowed the site.
The ceremony this year is far different than it has been in the past, following last year’s deadly disaster in which 45 men and boys were trampled to death. Thousands more people are waiting down the mountain, barred from entry until people leave, due to a strictly enforced capacity of 16,000 people.
Following the lighting, a klezmer band launches into a medley of classic tunes, most about the mystical Bar Yochai, who is believed to have died on Lag B’Omer, and instructed his followers to celebrate the anniversary of his death.
The lighting of the bonfire came after a more somber ceremony commemorating the 45 people killed last year and a recitation of evening prayers.
A branch of the Reform Movement in Israel is suing a popular ultra-Orthodox news website in Jerusalem over its policy of blurring faces of females.
The Israel Religious Action Center says it is seeking NIS 345,000 ($100,000) in damages from B’hadrei Haredim for a picture it ran last year of female leaders of Jewish movements meeting with President Isaac Herzog, in which the faces of the women were digitally smudged out.
The suit is filed on behalf of Anna Kislanski, CEO of the Reform Movement in Israel, IRAC Director Orly Erez-Likhovski, Rakefet Ginsburg, who leads the Conservative Movement in Israel, Yochi Rappeport, executive director of Women of the Wall, and WoW deputy leader, Tammy Gottlieb.
“B’hadrei Haredim must pay a significant price for this illegal exclusion, compensating my colleagues for the humiliation caused,” IRAC Executive Director Anat Hoffman says in a statement.
Many ultra-Orthodox publications refrain from publishing photos of women, or blur their faces, saying that depictions of women are immodest and should not be available to the eyes of those who subscribe to the need for hypermodesty.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this post.
At Mt. Meron, pilgrims are holding a special memorial ceremony for the 45 victims trampled to death last year, lighting candles and reading out their names to somber music, ahead of the lighting of the main Lag B’Omer bonfire.
Reporters at the scene report that order is being maintained, despite expected large crowds and new rules. Some attempting to enter the site with timed tickets are being told they must wait until their ticket is valid, leading to some crowding and confusion at the entrance, Channel 13 news reports.
Inside the compound, crowds are significantly smaller than in years past. Police are allowing 16,000 people to enter on timed tickets for four-hour blocks of time.
“It’s empty inside,” complains one pilgrim, who says he traveled four hours from Jerusalem, but only got 30 seconds inside the tomb site.
Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Lynn Hastings has condemned an Israeli court’s order that a Gazan humanitarian worker who has been on trial for years remain behind bars for another 45 days at least.
Courts have repeatedly extended Muhammad Halabi’s detention since his initial arrest in 2016, on charges he funneled approximately $7 million in annual aid to Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
The allegations against Halabi, who managed the Gaza office of the World Vision Christian aid group, have been subject to significant speculation and plagued by mysterious delays.
Halabi’s backers say $7 million is more than three times the annual budget for the World Vision Gaza office. Prosecutors have also provided minimal concrete evidence throughout the proceedings since Halabi’s widely publicized indictment in August 2016.
The Justice Ministry has declined to provide a justification for the lengthy detention, saying the case is classified.
“According to Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, minimum guarantees of a fair trial include the right to be tried without undue delay,” tweets Hastings.
Halabi’s drawn-out trial has also garnered the attention of the Biden administration, and diplomats from the US embassy in Jerusalem have attended several of the hearings.
The United Nations has significantly lowered its forecast for global economic growth this year from 4 percent to 3.1%, saying the war in Ukraine has triggered increasing global food and commodity prices and exacerbated inflationary pressures, upending the fragile recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mid-2022 forecast from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs said the downgrade in growth prospects is broad-based, including the world’s largest economies — the United States, China and most significantly the European Union — and the majority of other developed and developing countries.
The World Economic Situation and Prospects report also warned that the current forecast of 3.1% “faces significant downside risks from further intensification of the war in Ukraine and potential new waves of the pandemic.”
It says most countries in the Middle East will see growth accelerate, thanks to energy prices, but Israel, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinians will see growth slow significantly.
The economic growth rate in the region overall will drop from 6.1% in 2021 to 4.5% this year and 3.6% in 2023, it says.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims have made their way to the Mount Meron tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for ceremonies marking the anniversary of his death some 19 centuries ago and the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer.
Police are heavily deployed across the mountainside shrine, which usually sees several hundred thousand visitors on Lag B’Omer.
Authorities have instituted a number of safety measures meant to avoid a repeat of last year, when 45 people were killed in a crush of bodies on an illegally built ramp. Entrance to the site is set to be limited to 120,000 people, with only 16,000 allowed in the tomb compound at any given time, though questions have been raised about enforcement of the cap. The format of the event has also changed, with one large bonfire replacing six slightly smaller ones lit in years past.
The government has also fixed stairs and other infrastructure around the compound.
A Netanya resident speaking to Walla says he is going to the event, despite knowing some of last year’s victims and having lingering fears over safety.
“The pictures from there don’t calm me, I’m not sure the [walkways] will handle all the people,” he is quoted saying. “120,000 people is a ton, and also, there will be more than 120,000…. It’s a huge merit to come here and pray. I’m coming despite everything.”
No major disturbances or issues have been reported.
More than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers including senior commanders remain inside the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol, a pro-Russian separatist leader says.
Russia’s defense ministry says that 959 Ukrainian soldiers have surrendered since Monday at the plant, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance to Russian forces.
Speaking to reporters in Mariupol, the leader of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, says there had been about 2,000 fighters in the sprawling industrial complex and “a little more than half” remained inside.
“Commanders and high-ranking fighters of (the) Azov (regiment) have not yet come out,” he tells journalists, including from AFP, on a press tour organized by the Russian military.
The Azov regiment, a former paramilitary unit created in 2014, has integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces. Russia describes the unit, which has previous links to far-right groups, as a neo-Nazi organization.
Russia’s defense ministry says 80 wounded were among those who had surrendered since Monday and that some were being treated in a hospital in the town of Novoazovsk in Russian-controlled territory.
Pushilin said some of the wounded were also being treated in the city of Donetsk and that the rest of those who emerged from the plant were being held under guard in a prison colony.
Kyiv is hoping to exchange the Ukrainian fighters, but Russia has yet to confirm whether they will be part of a prisoner swap.
Police have arrested three youths making their way to Mount Meron for the annual Lag B’Omer celebration on suspicion they planned to sabotage equipment at the site, accusing them of endangering the whole shebang.
The three were found with pliers, boxcutters and spray paint in bags normally used to carry objects for Jewish prayer rites, police say following an undercover investigation. They suspect the youths planned to use the tools to damage electrical or telecommunications equipment, including loudspeakers and screens.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected in Meron Wednesday night and Thursday for an annual pilgrimage in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is buried there. Police have been under intense pressure to secure the event after 45 people were killed in a crush of bodies last year.
A statement from police accuses “extremist lawbreakers” of “trying every which way to sabotage the pilgrimage. Damage to infrastructure turns into damage that threatens the whole event and causes distress among celebrants. Should command and control operations be damaged, it could put those at the site at real risk.”
An Umm al-Fahm man has been charged for running what police say was a “pirate” crossing between Israel and the West Bank, where he would allow items or people to be smuggled for a fee.
The man, 38, is accused of “controlling” a section of the West Bank security barrier adjacent to his home, where he ran an illicit operation taking money for allowing people to use the section to move between Israel and the West Bank. He was arraigned yesterday in Haifa.
Among objects smuggled “systematically” through the crossing were assault rifles, pistols, stolen cars and other goods, police said. People, likely workers without permits to enter Israel, also used the crossing. Others aided the operation by collecting money or acting as lookouts for police. Smugglers were charged dozens or hundreds of shekels.
Police said three residents of Umm al-Fahm were arrested in April, before the investigation became public. Two West Bank residents were also arrested after the probe went public and are being questioned. Authorities did not say if the accused man is among the three who were arrested or if the others in Umm al-Fahm were freed or may still be charged.
Israel has been cracking down on holes in the security barrier since a series of deadly terror attacks carried out by Palestinians who entered Israel via the illicit passageways.
Germany says it remains confident that Sweden and Finland will be able to join NATO, despite alliance member Turkey’s current objections.
Government spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann says Germany is “actively working” to resolve the issues raised by Turkey, but declines to elaborate.
“The German government remains confident that all NATO members will support this accession and that it can be achieved quickly,” she says.
Hoffmann says the German Cabinet on Wednesday backed the accession protocol. Parliamentary approval is still required, but that is all but assured in Germany.
Hoffmann added that Germany would also support NATO membership for Austria and Ireland, should those neutral countries decide to join the military alliance.
The Czech Republic’s government also approved NATO membership for Finland and Sweden — just hours after the two countries submitted their requests.
The accession protocol still needs to be ratified by both chambers of Czech Parliament, which is expected to happen soon. Prime Minister Petr Fiala says he doesn’t anticipate any obstacles, as governing parties hold the majority in both chambers of parliament.
A controversial nationalist march decried as a provocation will be allowed to take place on May 29, following its normal route through the heart of the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announces.
As in years past, the Jerusalem Day Flag March will be allowed to go through Damascus Gate, down Hagay Street and to the Western Wall, Barlev said following a meeting with police brass, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
The parade, annually attended by thousands of right-wing youths and activists, is meant to celebrate the city’s unification in 1967 but is widely viewed as a thumb in the eye of the city’s Palestinians, and tensions often rise around the event.
In 2021, rocket fire from Gaza targeted Jerusalem just as the march was nearing Damascus Gate, kicking off 11 days of intense fighting.
A similar flag march planned for last month amid sky-high tensions surrounding Passover, Ramadan and Easter was blocked from reaching Damascus Gate after organizers and police failed to agree on a route.
Government officials at the time had defended the clampdown by saying that the march should be held on Jerusalem Day.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says Israel will pay to airlift injured Ukrainians to Israel for treatment.
Horowitz says in a tweet that he told his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Liashko that Israel will fund millions of shekels worth of medicine to be sent directly to Ukraine, and “will take care of flying injured Ukrainians to Israel for treatment — on our dime.”
He also repeats that Israel condemns “Russia’s cruel invasion.”
“This is our unequivocal position, and we back it up in deeds,” he says.
דיברתי עכשיו עם עמיתי שר הבריאות האוקראיני. נקצה מיליוני שקלים נוספים לתרופות שיועברו ישירות לאוקראינה, ונדאג להטיס פצועים מאוקראינה לטיפול בישראל – על חשבוננו. הבהרתי שוב: ישראל מגנה את הפלישה הרוסית האכזרית ועומדת לצד אוקראינה. זו עמדתנו החד משמעית, ואנחנו מגבים אותה במעשים. pic.twitter.com/8CPKhK6q5K
— Nitzan Horowitz نيتسان هوروفيتس ניצן הורוביץ (@NitzanHorowitz) May 18, 2022
According to the Kan broadcaster, Israel is mulling flying injured Ukrainian soldiers to Israel for treatment alongside civilians.
The Kan report does not attribute the information to a source.
A small number of civilians injured in the fighting were airlifted to hospitals in Israel in previous months, through special operations via medical rescue groups and Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
The first Russian soldier on trial in Ukraine for war crimes during Moscow’s invasion has pleaded guilty to killing a 62-year-old civilian in northeast Ukraine in the first days of the Kremlin’s offensive. He faces possible life imprisonment in Kyiv.
Asked in court if he was guilty of the allegations, including war crimes and premeditated murder, 21-year-old sergeant Vadim Shishimarin responds “yes.”
Shishimarin — from the Siberian region of Irkutsk — was seated in the glass defendant’s box in a Kyiv district court, wearing a blue and gray hoodie.
He looked toward the ground as a prosecutor read out charges against him in Ukrainian, which were then translated into Russian.
The European Union’s executive arm is moving to jumpstart plans for the 27-nation bloc to abandon Russian energy amid the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine, proposing a nearly 300 billion euro ($315 billion) package that includes more efficient use of fuels and faster rollout of renewable power.
The European Commission’s investment initiative is meant to help the 27 EU countries start weaning themselves off Russian fossil fuels this year. The goal is to deprive Russia, the EU’s main supplier of oil, natural gas and coal, of tens of billions in revenue and strengthen EU climate policies.
“We are taking our ambition to yet another level to make sure that we become independent from Russian fossil fuels as quickly as possible,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says in Brussels when announcing the package, dubbed REPowerEU.
The bloc’s dash to ditch Russian energy stems from a combination of voluntary and mandatory actions. Both reflect the political discomfort of helping fund Russia’s military campaign in a country that neighbors the EU and wants to join the bloc.
In a bid to swing Hungary behind the oil phaseout, the REPowerEU package expects oil-investment funding of around 2 billion euros for member nations highly dependent on Russian oil.
Energy savings and renewables form the cornerstones of the package, which would be funded mainly by an economic stimulus program put in place to help member countries overcome the slump triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Kremlin says the Ukrainian soldiers at a giant steel mill in the port of Mariupol are surrendering.
The Russian Defense Ministry says 959 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered since Monday.
Ukrainian authorities say they ordered the fighters to save their lives and said the mission to tie up Russian forces by defending the Azovstal plant is complete.
But they have have avoided describing the action of the ones who left the plant as a surrender.
Asked about the conflicting Russian and Ukrainian narratives, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tells reporters, “There can be just one interpretation: the troops holed up at Azovstal are laying down their weapons and surrendering.”
MK Ahmad Tibi can add “made a fellow Knesset member cry” to his list of accomplishments after an emotional exchange with Yesh Atid’s Merav Ben Ari.
The ruckus began when Tibi called out Ben Ari during a speech from the rostrum, saying he would never forgive her for saying she didn’t feel sorrow over the death of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
After Ben Ari yells back that she’s not looking for forgiveness, Tibi calls her “scum of the earth” repeatedly, leading Ben Ari to approach the rostrum to shout at Tibi from a closer position, as Knesset speaker pro tem Yevgeny Sova tries to no avail to keep World War III from breaking out.
Fisticuffs are avoided, and Ben Ari is allowed to speak from the rostrum after Tibi departs.
“I’m sick of it, I’m done, what is this behavior,” she tearfully says. “Have I ever cursed at one of you? Did I talk smack about you? Never, not even when Ofer Kassif called me a hen.”
Later, Tibi ascends the podium again to inform Ben Ari and the Knesset that “Shireen Abu Akleh can’t cry anymore.”
Police say they intend to charge right-wing political activist Ilana Sporta Hania for sending threatening letters containing bullets to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his family.
Hania, 65, of Ashkelon, was arrested last week on suspicion that she sent two letters containing bullets to Bennett and his wife, as well as his teenage son, threatening their safety if the prime minister did not resign.
Police say in a statement that since her arrest on May 9, “suspicions have strengthened that she carried out blackmail and owned and carried arms.”
A report on evidence against Hania and on plans to indict her was filed with the court Wednesday, police said.
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