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In latest sign of pandemic’s waning, indoor mask mandate to lift in two weeks

Ahead of Blinken visit, PM hints at ‘courageous, independent’ steps on Iran * David Barnea, 56, former top agent, named next Mossad chief

  • People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 17, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 17, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, outgoing Mossad director Yossi Cohen, right, and incoming director David Barnea at a ceremony conferring the Prime Minister's Award on exceptional Mossad agents, May 24, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, outgoing Mossad director Yossi Cohen, right, and incoming director David Barnea at a ceremony conferring the Prime Minister's Award on exceptional Mossad agents, May 24, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
  • Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar in an interview with Sky News broadcast May 24, 2021. (YouTube screen capture)
    Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar in an interview with Sky News broadcast May 24, 2021. (YouTube screen capture)
  • Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, Sunday, May 23, 2021. (Italian Vigili del Fuoco Firefighters via AP)
    Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, Sunday, May 23, 2021. (Italian Vigili del Fuoco Firefighters via AP)
  • Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021 (Courtesy)
    Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, May 6, 2021 (Courtesy)
  • Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, behind them, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, at a press conference after the Gaza ceasefire, Tel Aviv, May 21, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
    Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, behind them, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, at a press conference after the Gaza ceasefire, Tel Aviv, May 21, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
  • A Palestinian woman walks past a destroyed building in the al-Rimal commercial district in Gaza City on May 22, 2021, following a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
    A Palestinian woman walks past a destroyed building in the al-Rimal commercial district in Gaza City on May 22, 2021, following a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian terror groups. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
  • US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
    US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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

Italy opens probe into cable car crash that killed 14, including Israeli family

STRESA, Italy — Italy’s transport minister vows to establish the cause of a cable car disaster that killed 14 people, after the lead cable apparently snapped and the cabin careened back down the mountain until it came off the line and crashed to the ground.

The lone survivor of Sunday’s horrific incident, a 5-year-old Israeli boy living in Italy, remains hospitalized in Turin on Monday with multiple broken bones.

The Israeli foreign ministry identified him as Eitan Biran. His parents, younger brother and two great-grandparents were among the dead, the ministry said, correcting an earlier statement that had included Eitan among the victims.

Italian media identified all the other victims as residents of Italy.

Rescuers work by the wreckage of a cable car after it collapsed near the summit of the Stresa-Mottarone line in the Piedmont region, northern Italy, Sunday, May 23, 2021. (Italian Vigili del Fuoco Firefighters via AP)

The disaster, in one of the most picturesque spots in northern Italy — the Mottarone mountaintop overlooking Lake Maggiore and other lakes near Switzerland — raised questions anew about the quality and safety of Italy’s transport infrastructure.

Transport Minister Enrico Giovannini visits the site Monday and announces a commission of inquiry to investigate the “technical and organizational causes” of the accident, while prosecutors will focus on any criminal blame.

Giovannini tells reporters in Stresa, the lakefront town at the foot of the Mottarone peak, that the aim of the investigative commission would be to “ensure this never happens again.”

The transport ministry says a preliminary check of the cable line’s safety and maintenance record shows that the whole lift structure underwent a renovation in August 2016, and that a full maintenance check was performed in 2017.

WHO says at least 115,000 health workers have died from Covid

GENEVA, Switzerland — At least 115,000 health and care workers have died from Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO chief says, calling for a dramatic scale-up of vaccination in all countries.

At the opening of the World Health Organization’s main annual assembly, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hails the sacrifices made by health workers around the world to battle the pandemic.

“For almost 18 months, health and care workers all over the world have stood in the breach between life and death,” he says. “They have saved countless lives and fought for others who, despite their best efforts, slipped away.

Healthcare workers take on a stretcher a patient suspected of having COVID-19 from an ambulance, at the HRAN public hospital in Brasilia, Brazil, March 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

“Many have themselves become infected, and while reporting is scant, we estimate that at least 115,000 health and care workers have paid the ultimate price in the service of others.”

He says many health workers have since the start of the crisis felt “frustrated, helpless and unprotected, with a lack of access to personal protective equipment and vaccines.”

And they are not alone. He describes the overall inequity in access to vaccines as “scandalous,” warning it was “perpetuating the pandemic.”

More than 75 percent of all Covid-19 vaccines have gone to just 10 countries.

Hospital says two stabbing victims in moderate condition and conscious

Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus updates on the condition of the two men stabbed a short time ago in Jerusalem.

The two, aged 21 and 23, each arrived at the hospital with “multiple stabbing wounds,” a hospital statement says.

Both are “classified in moderate condition and are conscious.”

Blinken heads to region to push peace talks, Gaza aid

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to the Middle East to press the Israelis, Palestinians and regional players to build on last week’s Gaza ceasefire by laying the groundwork for an eventual resumption in long-stalled peace talks.

President Joe Biden announced Blinken would depart today for a short visit to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt for what will be the Biden administration’s highest-level in-person meetings on the crisis that erupted earlier this month.

In a statement, Biden said the time is not right for an immediate resumption in negotiations between the two sides but that steps could be taken — mainly humanitarian initiatives — to repair damage from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

“I don’t think we’re in a place where getting to some kind of a negotiation for what ultimately, I think, has to be the result, which is a two-state solution, is the first order of business,” he said. “We have to start building back in concrete ways and offering some genuine hope, prospects, opportunity in the lives of people.”

Gantz orders seizure of chemicals, equipment, gold intended for Hamas

Defense Minister Benny Gantz orders the confiscation of shipments of materials and equipment to Gaza that the IDF suspects is intended for Hamas’s military efforts.

In the days that preceded the latest round of fighting that began May 10, inspectors at the Kerem Shalom border crossing nabbed shipments of potassium chloride, glycerin, polyurethane, fiberglass and other materials, as well as sophisticated communications equipment, the Ynet news site reports.

Gantz also orders the confiscation of an estimated million shekels ($310,000) worth of gold the IDF caught being smuggled from Gaza to the West Bank, which officials say was intended to fund Hamas operations and terror attacks in the West Bank.

Lapid says chances of ‘change’ coalition ‘not high,’ but vows to try

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has nine days left to his presidential mandate to form a coalition, tells his Knesset faction he’ll “do everything to form a government. Anyone that wants to come and talk, my door is open. We’ll sit, we’ll talk, we’ll think together how to build the best possible government for the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel.”

“The chances might not be high,” he says, “but while there is a chance, however small, we will leave no stone unturned.”

He blames what he describes as the long series of troubles over the past month on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dysfunctional government.

Israel has seen two civilian disasters — at Mount Meron and in the Jerusalem suburb of Pisgat Ze’ev — in which poor infrastructure and the disregard of safety rules led to the deaths of participants at Haredi religious functions.

“The tragedy at Mount Meron, the disaster in Givat Ze’ev, the riots on the Temple Mount, the loss of control on the streets of mixed Arab-Jewish towns,” he says in the statement. “Look at how the public security minister attacked the chief of police that he himself appointed, at how the police collapsed and received no real backing, at how political corruption has become the standard.”

Netanyahu, he charges, “failed spectacularly” in the Gaza fight. “His government went into the operation without a strategy, without a functioning public diplomacy operation, without proper shelters for the citizens of the south, without a diplomatic vision and like always, without taking any responsibility.”

Gantz, Netanyahu meet to reexamine Gaza policy, consider reconstruction

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Israel’s future policy toward the Gaza Strip following a meeting with top defense officials.

The meeting comes as the government seeks to find a way forward following this month’s 11-day conflict with the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

Earlier today, Gantz hashed out the contents of proposed policy changes toward Gaza with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, the head of the IDF Strategic Directorate Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman, as well as Defense Ministry Dir. Gen. Amir Eshel and the head of the Defense Ministry’s influential Political-Military Bureau, Zohar Palti.

Israel has long struggled with the challenge of finding ways to allow reconstruction efforts in Gaza without the supplies and funds being diverted to the military buildup efforts of Hamas and other Gazan terror groups.

Biden speaks out against antisemitic attacks, says ‘they must stop’

US President Joe Biden speaks out against a wave of antisemitic attacks hitting Jewish communities in the US and around the world since the start of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas on May 10.

“The recent attacks on the Jewish community are despicable, and they must stop,” Biden says on his official Twitter account.

“I condemn this hateful behavior at home and abroad — it’s up to all of us to give hate no safe harbor.”

Biden’s statement comes three days after several prominent US Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union and Hadassah, appealed to the president to take steps to rein in the spate of attacks in cities throughout the United States.

“We fear that the way the conflict has been used to amplify antisemitic rhetoric, embolden dangerous actors and attack Jews and Jewish communities will have ramifications far beyond these past two weeks,” the Friday letter said, according to the Washington Post.

We “urge you to speak out forcefully against this dangerous trend and stand alongside the Jewish community in the face of this wave of hate before it gets any worse.”

Iran agrees to extend deal on cameras at its nuclear sites

VIENNA — Iran and the UN’s nuclear watchdog agree to a one-month extension to a deal on surveillance cameras at Tehran’s atomic sites, buying more time for ongoing negotiations seeking to save the country’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

The last-minute discussions, including the International Atomic Energy Agency pushing back a statement planned for Sunday, further underscored the narrowing window for the US and others to reach terms with Iran as it presses a tough stance with the international community over its atomic program. The Islamic Republic is already enriching and stockpiling uranium at levels far beyond those allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in Vienna, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi tells journalists that agreement came after a discussion with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. He acknowledges that challenges remain, however, as the agency still can’t access images taken by its cameras.

“I’d want to stress this is not ideal,” Grossi said. “This is like an emergency device that we came up with in order for us to continue having these monitoring activities.”

Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s representative to the IAEA, acknowledges the deal at the same time on Twitter. He says Tehran’s civilian nuclear agency, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, would keep the material already recorded by the IAEA cameras.

“We recommend the negotiating countries to seize the extra opportunity provided by Iran in good faith for the complete lifting of sanctions in a practical and verifiable manner,” Gharibabadi writes.

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran’s program to see if it is complying with the nuclear deal.

Hamas threatens rocket fire if Israel puts conditions on reconstruction aid

Hamas leaders say they reject the conditions Israel is seeking to impose on Gaza’s reconstruction, including the proposal made by Defense Minister Benny Gantz yesterday that any aid that isn’t humanitarian be conditioned on Hamas’s release of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers captured by Hamas in 2014.

Hamas would “not be blackmailed,” the report in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quotes officials as saying.

Hamas officials also threaten to resume rocket attacks on Israel if the Israeli government seeks to impose a new status quo on Gaza following the fighting, after some Israeli officials called for a renewal of assassinations of Hamas leaders if rocket fire and other violence from Gaza continues.

Police arrest 74 for participation in ethnic rioting over the past two weeks

Israeli police say that over the past 24 hours they arrested 74 Israelis suspected of involvement in ethnic rioting across Israel in recent days.

The arrests are part of Operation Law and Order, a crackdown against violent gangs and rioters who took part in inter-ethnic violence in mixed Arab-Jewish towns over the past two weeks.

Around 1,550 arrests have been made and about 150 indictments filed by police since the riots began two weeks ago, police say.

According to Hebrew media reports, most of those arrested have been Arab Israelis, reflecting the larger scale of violence from the Arab side, according to police.

But police have also drawn criticism from the Arab community after reports of officers standing by while Jewish rioters attacked Arabs in some areas.

Hamas co-founder to UK TV: Israel has no right to exist

In a rare interview, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar tells Britain’s Sky News that Israel has no right to exist, and seems to acknowledge that Hamas targets Israeli civilian populations.

The interview was conducted this week by Sky’s Middle East correspondent, Mark Stone, who visited al-Zahar in his Gaza home.

In stilted English, al-Zahar explains that Hamas’s “victory” is a function of the group’s ability to fire rockets on densely populated Israeli civilian areas.

“The new element” in the latest round of fighting, al-Zahar says, “is the degree of the resistance movement, particularly in Gaza, to attack the Israeli targets at very important points, including most of the overcrowded area in the civilian society. So for how long the Israeli will accept that, I think this is the main issue.”

Stone challenges al-Zahar, “You are firing rockets and missiles from civilian areas here in Gaza at civilians in Israel. That’s not acceptable, that’s a war crime.”

Al-Zahar rejects the accusation that Hamas endangers Palestinians — but does not challenge the assertion that it targets Israeli civilians.

“No single rocket was sent from a civilian area. We [fired] most of the rockets from the border,” he tells Stone.

“That’s not true, though, is it? Because we’ve seen video of rockets being fired from within the built-up area of Gaza City at Israeli communities,” Stone says.

Al-Zahar defends the rocket fire, saying, “This is not against Israeli communities, this is against Israeli occupation. This is against Israeli aggression.”

A short time later, Stone asks Al-Zahar point-blank: “Does the State of Israel have the right to exist?”

Al-Zahar replies, “No. Why? Why? You are coming from America and you take my house. You came from Britain and you took my brother’s house. This is a settlement. You are not a citizen. We are the owners of this. This is an Arabic area. This is well-known as an Islamic area, well-known.”

The conversation ranges further, dealing with the two-state solution, with Hamas’s spending on military infrastructure instead of Gaza’s impoverished population, and other issues.

In US, VP Harris joins Biden in denouncing wave of antisemitic attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris joins an earlier statement from President Joe Biden denouncing the sharp spike in antisemitic attacks around the world since the start of the latest round of fighting in Gaza on May 10.

“The surge in anti-Semitic attacks against the Jewish community in the US and around the world is despicable — it must be called out, condemned, and stopped. As a country, we must stand united against hate of any kind,” Harris says in a statement on Twitter.

PM announces new Mossad chief: Deputy director and former top agent David Barnea

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces the appointment of the next director of Israel’s Mossad espionage agency.

David Barnea, 56, who now serves as deputy head of the organization, will replace the outgoing director, Yossi Cohen, Netanyahu says at the annual ceremony this afternoon conferring the Prime Minister’s Award for exceptional Mossad officers.

Barnea’s top task, the prime minister declares, “is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Incoming Mossad director David Barnea. (Courtesy)

Barnea, a married father of four, has served for 25 years in the Mossad, including in prominent operational roles that saw him rise to lead the Mossad branch that handles the organization’s agents worldwide. He was appointed Cohen’s deputy in 2019. He will take over as director on June 1.

The appointment was held up for months — Netanyahu announced he had chosen Cohen’s replacement back in December, though the name was kept secret until today — by legal concerns as to whether an interim government is permitted to appoint the next Mossad director. But Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Netanyahu recently that he saw no legal impediments and the appointment went ahead.

Cohen has served as head of the Mossad since January 2016.

“I wish [Barnea] all success in the post, and I’m convinced the incoming Mossad director will do great things and will continue to lead the Mossad to operational successes and meaningful achievements,” Cohen says in a brief statement at the event.

Belarus claims it forced Ryanair plane to land because of Hamas threat

MINSK, Belarus — A senior Belarus transportation official says that the country had received a bomb threat claiming to be from Hamas ahead of the diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight carrying a dissident, a diversion that drew widespread excoriation from Europe and the United States.

Artem Sikorsky, the head of the aviation department at the transportation and communications ministry, reads out a letter to journalists that says: “We, the soldiers of Hamas, demand that Israel ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union renounces its support for Israel in this war… A bomb is planted on this flight. If you do not fulfill our demands, the bomb will explode over Vilnius on May 23.”

Critics have charged that the forced landing of the Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident on board amounted to “piracy,” and US and European Union officials are reportedly mulling steps to punish Belarus’s authoritarian regime for the incident.

In sign of pandemic’s waning, first Birthright trip in a year lands in Israel

In yet another sign of the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Birthright Israel group lands in Tel Aviv this afternoon for the first time in a year.

The participants are all vaccinated college students from the United States, the group says.

They will take part in the organization’s signature 10-day educational tour of Israel offered to all college-age Jews by the foundation.

“Dozens of trips are expected during May and June, with many more tour groups planned for July, August, and October,” the organization says in a statement.

Participants in the first post-COVID Birthright Israel trip, after landing in Israel after a year-long hiatus for the organization, on May 24, 2021. (Erez Uzir/Courtesy)

“I am extremely excited that we are renewing the connection between the young Diaspora” and Israel, the group’s CEO Gidi Mark says.

“We’ve developed the best plan to safely and efficiently resume our trips, which play such a critical part in strengthening the Jewish identity of hundreds of thousands of young people around the world and connect them with the State of Israel,” Mark says. “Following the rise of antisemitism over the past weeks, this is now more important than ever before.”

In 2019, Birthright brought over 44,000 young Jewish adults to visit Israel. It has seen some 750,000 participants since its founding in 1999.

Syria blames Israel for mysterious attacks on oil tankers

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s foreign minister blames Israel for mysterious attacks that have occurred for more than a year targeting oil tankers heading to Syria, saying they violate international law and will not go unpunished.

In an interview aired late Sunday, Faisal Mekdad tells Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which is affiliated with the Hezbollah terror group, that oil tankers coming to Syria now move under Russian protection. He does not provide any evidence for Israeli involvement in the attacks.

Syria’s oil resources are mostly outside of government-controlled areas, although two of its refineries are operating. This makes Syria reliant on Iran for fuel.

US Treasury sanctions have targeted a network that spans Syria, Iran and Russia responsible for shipping oil to the Syrian government, which has been at war for more than a decade.

A screenshot of video aired by Syrian state TV on April 24, 2021, shows a fire on a ship off the coast of Banyas, which Syria says was apparently started after the ship was attacked by a drone. (Screen capture: Twitter)

For more than a year, vessels carrying oil to Syria, as well as some oil facilities in government-held parts of the war-torn country, have been subjected to mysterious attacks.

“There should be deterrence to Israeli attacks on ships,” Mekdad says without elaborating. “The Israeli government and arrogant Israeli leaders must understand that these attacks cannot continue with Israel not paying a price.”

Last month, Syria’s oil ministry said a fire erupted in a tanker on its coast after what it said was a suspected drone attack. Also in April, an attack targeted an Iranian cargo ship that is said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen.

US House Speaker Pelosi joins in condemnation of wave of antisemitic attacks

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the third-highest ranked elected official in the United States, joins President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in condemning the wave of antisemitic attacks targeting Jewish communities since the start of the latest round of Gaza fighting.

“The recent spike in antisemitic attacks against Jews around the country and the world is horrific, heartbreaking & demands action,” Pelosi writes on Twitter.

“Antisemitism cannot be tolerated. We must come together as Americans to condemn and combat this appalling bigotry and hatred.”

Ahead of Blinken visit, PM hints at ‘courageous, independent’ steps on Iran

Speaking to Mossad officers this evening at an awards ceremony just hours before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in the region for talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests Israel may take an “independent” tack on Iran.

“I appreciate our friend the United States very much. It has stood by us for many years,” Netanyahu says. “That’s a vital part of our national security.

“But,” he adds, “there could come a situation where our principal goal — to ensure the ayatollahs don’t end the millennia-long existence of the Jewish people — demands that we make courageous and independent decisions. The State of Israel won’t allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

Officials expect to lift indoor face-mask requirement within two weeks

Health Ministry officials say the requirement to wear face masks indoors may be lifted within two weeks if the trend of ever-declining contagion continues even as pandemic restrictions are steadily eased.

Israel has all but emerged from the pandemic, with most businesses and schools back to normal and the government announcing the imminent reopening of movie theaters and arts venues following Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive over the past few months.

According to Channel 12, health officials were still keeping in place restrictions on incoming travelers, and were planning on tightening those restrictions to prevent the entry of potential vaccine-resistant variants.

“It’s still important to ensure that contagion does not arrive from outside,” Dr. Sharon Elroy-Price, the Health Ministry’s chief of public health, tells the channel in an interview. “On that front, not only will the restrictions remain, they will be increased. We haven’t yet identified a variant that’s resilient to the vaccine,” she says. “We’re conducting many tests to prevent the entry of any such variant.”

All incoming travelers must still quarantine for about two weeks, and must receive a COVID test on their ninth day in the country, she says.

Merkel says Belarus’s Hamas claim ‘completely implausible’

BRUSSELS, Belgium — German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday dismisses Belarus’s explanation for why it forced an airliner to land in Minsk and arrested a dissident on board.

“We have seen a forced landing that led to the arrest,” Merkel says on arrival at an EU summit where sanctions will be discussed. “All other explanations for the landing of this Ryanair flight are completely implausible.”

Belarus claimed a short time ago that it had forced the plane’s landing after receiving a warning that the Palestinian terror group Hamas planned to blow it up.

Blinken lifts off for visit to Israel, West Bank, Egypt, Jordan

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken lifts off to the Middle East on Monday to press Israelis, Palestinians and regional players to build on and strengthen last week’s Gaza ceasefire, start an immediate flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and lay the groundwork for an eventual resumption in long-stalled peace talks.

President Joe Biden announced that he was dispatching Blinken to the region for what will be his administration’s highest-level, in-person talks on the crisis that erupted earlier this month. The State Department said Blinken will visit Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt on a trip that comes as the administration has faced broad criticism for its initial response to the deadly violence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he boards a plane Monday, May 24, 2021, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, en route to the Middle East. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

In a statement, Biden said Blinken will work with regional partners to ensure “the coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza.”

Blinken’s discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah II will focus on shoring up the cease-fire, sending urgent aid to Gaza, ending intra-communal violence in Israeli cities, and laying the preliminary groundwork for a return to peace talks, according to a senior State Department official.

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the trip by name and spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Blinken would be looking at how the US can support Israel and the Palestinians in rebuilding, address the underlying causes that led to this crisis, and advance equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians “in tangible ways.”

Netanyahu to meet Blinken in Jerusalem tomorrow at 10

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his Jerusalem office tomorrow at 10 a.m. local time, the Prime Minister’s Office says.

Amid airline row, Belarus president signs tough new law restricting media

KYIV, Ukraine — The authoritarian president of Belarus signs a law sharply restricting news media activities and allowing them to be shut down without a court hearing.

The move by President Alexander Lukashenko comes a day after the arrest of a prominent opposition journalist whose commercial flight was forcibly diverted to Belarus because of an alleged bomb threat. The arrest and flight diversion were condemned by Western countries and drew new attention to Belarus’s crackdown on media since widespread protests against Lukashenko arose last year.

Under the new law, news media are banned from making live reports on unauthorized mass gatherings. It also allows the Information Ministry to order a media outlet’s closure; previously, media closures required a court decision.

Other strictures include prohibiting the publication of the results of opinion polls that are not authorized by the government.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, accompanied by officials, attends a requiem rally on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the town of Bragin, some 360 km (225 miles) south-east of Minsk, Belarus, on April 26, 2021. (Sergei Sheleg/BelTA Pool Photo via AP, File)

“This is the most repressive media law in Europe, which turns the work of journalists in Belarus into a minefield,” said Andrei Bastunets, president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists.

Widespread protests rocked Belarus for weeks last year, following an allegedly fraudulent election that gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office. More than 30,000 people were arrested in the protests, many of them beaten by police.

The country has steadily cracked down on journalists, including blocking several major news websites and declaring opposition-minded messaging app channels to be extremist.

Israel’s Defense Ministry wants Gaza aid to bypass Hamas

An Israeli defense official says aid to rebuild the conflict-battered Gaza Strip must bypass its Hamas rulers, and instead flow through an international “mechanism” to reach people directly.

Israel argues the measures are necessary to isolate the terror group.

The official — who is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter — says the aid must be managed to rehabilitate Gaza “without posing a threat to Israel.”

The official, who speaks a day before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits the region, says aid deliveries will have to involve the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which has worked with Hamas in the past to deliver donations to Gaza.

US President Joe Biden said in a statement Sunday that part of Blinken’s trip would include working on “the coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza in a way that benefits the people there and not Hamas.”

Hamas says it stands ready to resume fighting if Israel attacks

A spokesman for the Hamas terror group’s armed wing tells a crowd of supporters that Hamas will respond to any Israeli escalation in kind.

“Our actions precede our words and our missiles are in their stands, ready and awaiting the decision,” a spokesperson for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades says.

The spokesperson delivers the remarks at an event mourning deceased terrorists who fell during the recent hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Hamas’s Gaza governor, Yahya Sinwar, is in attendance.

“We say to the occupation with consistency and clarity: if you return, so shall we. If you escalate, so shall we. Our hands are on the trigger, and our battle has chapters still unwritten,” the spokesperson says.

The comments come after some Israeli officials in recent days called to implement a policy of preemptive strikes against rocket launchers and Hamas leaders in the wake of the last round of fighting.

Brick thrown at window of Kosher pizzeria in Manhattan

NEW YORK — Against the backdrop of a recent spike in antisemitic attacks across the US, Saba’s Pizza on the Upper East Side of Manhattan had a brick thrown at one of its windows overnight Sunday-Monday, according to a local group that supports kosher restaurants in New York City.

“Saba’s Upper East Side location was vandalized today, when a brick was thrown through the glass windows on the exterior of the restaurant,” says On Mondays We Eat Local co-founder Jonah Rosen in an email to members.

A patron of the restaurant posted a photo of the damaged window on Twitter.

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