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Seeking to calm US, Israel said to back off contentious East Jerusalem housing plan

Proposal for 9,000 homes to be built over Atarot airport seemingly won’t be advanced by District Planning Commission for now, but unclear if neighborhood off the table altogether

Buses parked at what was once Jerusalem Airport at Atarot; in the background, the high-rises of the Kafr Aqab neighborhood -- formally part of Jerusalem but outside the security barrier, November 2021. (DH / Times of Israel)
Buses parked at what was once Jerusalem Airport at Atarot; in the background, the high-rises of the Kafr Aqab neighborhood -- formally part of Jerusalem but outside the security barrier, November 2021. (DH / Times of Israel)

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

Coronavirus cabinet not expected to ban airport entry after Omicron found – reports

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet is set to meet at 8.30 pm Saturday evening to debate new restrictions on entry to the country, after a case of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 was discovered in Israel and fears that it could already be spreading in the population.

Ministers are not expected to decide on closing entry to the country to foreigners, but may impose some additional restrictions on tourists, according to several Hebrew media reports. They may, however, ban all entry from South Africa, Channel 12 says.

According to Kan news, Prime Minister Banftali Bennett is in favor of closing the airport, but most ministers do not currently support such drastic action.

Beyond the airport, another area of concern is the education system, where health officials fear the outbreak could be most prominent.

Bennett orders southern Africa be labeled ‘red’ over virus mutant worries

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ordered that countries in southern Africa be labeled as “red,” heavily restricting entry following the emergence of a new, highly mutable coronavirus variant in South Africa, his office says.

Israelis are banned from traveling to countries labeled as red, and those entering must quarantine for 14 days unless they have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus.

Bennett “also instructed that an immediate evaluation be held on stopping flights from these countries to Israel and vice versa, or the implementation of a different plan to prevent the variant from spreading to Israel,” the PMO says.

The decisions come following a consultation with top health officials. Another meeting is planning for later Thursday night, Bennett’s office says.

Israel appears to back off controversial East Jerusalem neighborhood plan

A controversial plan for some 9,000 housing units for ultra-Orthodox Jews in a new East Jerusalem neighborhood has been removed from the agenda of an upcoming district planning meeting, where it had been expected to be advanced, a researcher for the left-wing Peace Now organization says.

According to Walla news, Israeli officials told the White House that the plan to build a new neighborhood over the abandoned Atarot airport is being shelved.

Officials in Israel clarified to Washington that the initial backing the plan received this week came from a local Jerusalem planning commission, but that it won’t advance to the district planning commission, which is controlled by the government, according to the report.

However, a separate report in Ynet says Israeli officials told US counterparts that it would be a year before the plan reaches the government-controlled commission, though they did not say it would be squelched.

According to the Ynet report, US officials had sought clarifications from Israel as to why the plan was being pushed ahead after former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had delayed it for a decade.

Protean South African virus mutation raises alarms in Israel

Health official are reportedly calling for steps to be taken to keep a potentially worrying new variant of the coronavirus out of the country.

Scientists in South Africa revealed Thursday that they had detected a new COVID-19 variant with “a very high number of mutations,” blamed for an “exponential” surge in infections there.

The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.

Children aged 5-11 receive their first first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, on November 25, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

At a meeting to discuss the variant, Health Ministry officials say Israel should bar visitors from countries where the variant has been identified, the Ynet news site reports.

The Kan broadcaster reports that officials have also called for those who arrived in Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday to be tested again, given the variant’s high mutability.

The station also says a meeting meant to discuss possible vaccinations for adolescents who already recovered from COVID-19 has been pushed off by two weeks to wait for more data.

AFP contributed to this report.

Green-eyed Afghan refugee in famous magazine cover flees to Rome

Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed Afghan woman immortalized decades ago on a National Geographic cover, has been evacuated to Italy, the Italian government says.

“Afghan citizen Sharbat Gula has arrived in Rome,” it says in a statement, without giving a specific date.

Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl photographed by journalist Steve McCurry for National Geographic in 1984 and again in 2003. (YouTube screenshot of photographs published by National Geographic)

Rome says it had responded to pleas from non-profit organizations working in Afghanistan to help her leave the Taliban-controlled country, “organizing for her to travel to Italy as part of the wider evacuation program in place for Afghan citizens and the government’s plan for their reception and integration.”

Gula became arguably Afghanistan’s most famous refugee after photographer Steve McCurry captured her portrait in a Pakistan camp in the 1980s and it was published on the front cover of the National Geographic magazine.

In early September, Rome said it had evacuated almost 5,000 Afghans from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in August.

Israel warns Syrian officer it says is aiding Hezbollah along border

The IDF is seemingly putting notice on a Syrian officer who it says aids the Hezbollah terror group as part of his work commanding a network of observation posts along the Golan Heights border.

In a social media post, Arabic-language spokesperson Avichay Adraee says that Naqib Bashar al-Hussein, the commanding officer of the Syrian Arab Army 90th Brigade’s reconnaissance company “serves as the main liaison between Hezbollah’s southern headquarters and the 1st Division of the Syrian [Arab] Army.”

Adraee shares a photo of al-Hussein in which he can be seen on the border with Israel with a camera alongside leading Hezbollah commander Jawad Hashem, apparently observing Israeli troops and collecting information for the terror group.

“As part of his job, Naqib Bashar accompanies various Hezbollah members and even coordinates the handling and repair of observation posts belonging to Hezbollah and sometimes even Iran,” Adraee says.

The post includes some biographical information about al-Hussein, including the town where he lives.

Israel’s military has publicized information about specific figures in the past as a method of attempting to warn them that they are being watched and could be targeted.

“IDF forces are monitoring the occurrences on the other side of the border and anyone who tries to harm the security of Israel and its citizens,” Adraee says.

Police open probe into prison guard ‘pimping’ allegations

The police serious crimes unit says it has opened a probe into allegations leveled by Gilboa prison commander Freddy Ben Shitrit about female soldiers being offered up as sexual gifts meant to mollify inmates.

Ben Shitrit’s comments about what he called “pimping” to a panel investigating an escape from the prison have sparked a firestorm, three years after officials closed a probe into the matter for lack of evidence, despite the testimony of several female soldiers about being harassed or sexually assaulted by inmates as part of the practice.

Police are expected to summon Ben Shitrit for questioning to explain his comments, though he was not yet at the prison in 2018 when the alleged acts took place.

Earlier in the day, Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev, who oversees the police, asked the Attorney General to probe the case, and said police chief Kobi Shabtai was also planning to look into the allegations.

Poland downgrades mission to Israel, says it won’t send ambassador

Poland’s Foreign Ministry says it will have no ambassador in Israel for the time being, bringing the mission level down to that of Israel’s mission in Poland.

Poland’s ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski. (Poland Embassy photo)

The traditionally sensitive bilateral relations soured in the summer after Poland adopted legislation seen as banning claims for restitution of some seized property, including that of Holocaust victims. Israel protested.

Poland at the time told its ambassador, Marek Magierowski, not to return to his Tel Aviv post after a vacation. He has since been appointed to Washington, and Warsaw now says it will not send a replacement.

“There are no plans at the moment to propose a new person for the position of ambassador” in Tel Aviv, Ministry spokesman Lukasz Jasina says.

Holocaust survivors hold banners and wave an Israeli flag during a protest in front of Polish embassy in Tel Aviv, on February 8, 2018, against a controversial bill. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s mission to Poland is only at the charge d’affaires level, following earlier tensions. Tal Ben-Ari Yaalon, who was recalled to Israel during the summer spat, is expected to return to Warsaw.

Ombudsman calls to remove chief Sephardi rabbi from religious court

The ombudsman of the Israeli judiciary is again calling for the possible removal of Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef from the Great Rabbinical Court of Appeals in Jerusalem.

Former Supreme Court justice Uri Shoham says that this is due to Yosef’s organization of a Rabbinate conference against reforms being pushed by the government that will remove an Orthodox monopoly on Kashrut certification and religious conversions, following a complaint from the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

Shoham says the conference, which included rabbis from the state-run Rabbinate, as well as municipal rabbis and rabbinical judges, was in contravention of ethical guidelines that prohibit public servants from intervening in sensitive partisan issues.

In October 2020, Shoham asked the Selection Committee for Rabbinical Judges to consider removing Yosef over controversial comments he made about women, Reform Judaism and the High Court of Justice, also following a complaint from the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (center) writes part of a Torah scroll at the Jewish community center in Dubai, on December 19, 2020. (Courtesy of the Dubai Jewish Community Center/via JTA)

Yosef is the son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former spiritual leader of the Shas political party, which had vowed to protect Yosef last year, but is now in the Knesset opposition.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, who was criticized at the conference, nonetheless backs Yosef’s right to speak freely.

Other religious and right-wing politicians are also speaking out against Shoham and in defense of Yosef.

Ramon airport to reopen to international traffic next month – report

Israel’s airports authority says the Ramon Airport near Eilat will reopen to international flights on December 10, Ynet reports.

The southern Negev airport, which opened to much fanfare in January 2019, has been essentially shuttered to international traffic since the start of the pandemic.

Located some 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Eilat, the airport is designed to bring millions of tourists to and from the Red Sea resort city each year.

Algeria fumes over Gantz visit to Morocco

A top Algerian official says Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit to neighboring Morocco, with which Algiers has cut diplomatic ties, “targeted” his country.

“The enemies are mobilizing more and more to undermine Algeria,” which is “targeted” by the visit, says Senate president Salah Goudjil.

Goudjil is the most senior official in Algeria after the president.

He makes the remarks a day after Gantz and Morocco’s minister in charge of defense administration, Abdellatif Loudiyi, signed a security agreement in Rabat.

Tensions between Rabat and Algiers have risen in recent weeks amid a standoff over disputed Western Sahara.

Army chief speaks out after officer accused of filming female troops

IDF Chief Aviv Kohavi says an officer arrested for allegedly secretly filming female soldiers will be discharged, vowing zero tolerance for those who harm any member of the military.

Dan Sharoni, a lieutenant colonel at a military driving school on the Bahad 6 base, was arrested two weeks ago for suspected sexual offenses. A gag order barring publication of the case was lifted on Wednesday.

Over the course of several years, on different bases where he served, Sharoni allegedly filmed dozens of female soldiers using hidden cameras and stole intimate photos of troops under his command.

“This is unacceptable and serious behavior that we condemn and denounce,” Kohavi says in a statement to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. “Alongside the criminal process and bringing him to justice, we are working to discharge him immediately.”

“We are committed to creating an environment of respect for all those serving in the IDF,” he adds.

Israel must build up military force while talking to allies on Iran — Gantz

Defense Minister Benny Gantz says Israel is working to develop its ability to conduct a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, alongside its efforts to improve the terms of a future agreement between the world powers and Tehran.

“In terms of Iran, we must influence our partners and to have ongoing discussions with them. Our other obligation is to build a military force, which is an important issue by itself. I ordered [the military] to improve its force build-up, in parallel to our discussions with our strategic partners,” Gantz says after being asked about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel and the United States have been at loggerheads over the Iranian issue, with US President Joe Biden preferring a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, while Israel doubts the feasibility of such an agreement under the current conditions.

Asked what would represent a “best case scenario” in terms of a new Iran nuclear deal, Gantz says Israel would want one that dealt not only with the issue of uranium enrichment but with missiles and Iran’s activities in the region, namely its support for proxies throughout the Middle East.

“A good deal would be a deal that sealed the holes of the current deal in terms of nuclear enrichment, launch systems, the deal’s duration, and what Iran is doing in the region,” he says.

Police searching for suspects after woman apparently shot to death

Police are deployed in large numbers near Maghar on the Lebanese border to search for suspects in the apparent killing of a woman found dead in a home there.

A statement from a police spokesperson says the woman, 32, was found with apparent gunshot wounds, and an investigation has been opened.

Police say the motive or background for the apparent killing is not yet known.

The victim is the 114th person to be killed by violent crime in the Arab community this year, 15 of them women, the Abraham Initiatives says.

Police who were in Maghar investigating a traffic accident were called to the scene by residents who heard gunshots, the police statement says.

Bennett meets with family of Gaza captive al-Sayed

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited with the family of Hisham al-Sayed, one of two Israeli men being held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza, his office says.

The Prime Minister’s Office says the visit is part of routine updates the prime minister provides families of captive Israelis, downplaying any hopes of a breakthrough despite recent reports of progress in talks to free al-Sayed, along with Avera Mengistu and the remains of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, all held in Gaza since 2014.

Both al-Sayed and Mengistu entered Gaza of their own accord. They are thought to suffer emotional disturbances.

Manal al-Sayed holds up a picture of her son, Hisham, who is believed to be held captive in Gaza by the Hamas terrorist group, in 2016. (Yoav Lemmer/AFP)

The al-Sayeds were last visited by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019.

Bennett holds the meeting alongside Yaron Bloom, who is coordinating efforts to free the Israelis held in Gaza, as well as his national security adviser Eyal Hulata and military secretary Avi Gil.



Woman, 32, found dead in Maghar home

A woman has been found dead with apparent signs of violence on her body in a home in the Druze-majority town of Maghar, on the Lebanese border.

The woman, 32, was found lifeless, with a number of puncture wounds, the Magen David Adom rescue service says.

There is no immediate comment from police.


Ex-MK says she asked for outside probe into prison ‘pimping’ claims years ago

Former Labor MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin says on Twitter that she petitioned several times in 2018 for an external body to be appointed to probe allegations that female soldiers guarding a prison were used as sexual bait for terror inmates and were subject to sexual abuse and harassment.

Nahmias-Verbin shares a copy of a response she received from then-public security minister Gilad Erdan in which he says he had already appointed a prison official to look into the allegations and that the case had been transferred to the police.

In the letter, Erdan promises to take the allegations seriously and follow up on the matter pending the results of the police probe.

Zionist Union MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin attends a Knesset committee meeting, November 2, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Despite his statement, the case, which received little media attention before Wednesday’s bombshell testimony, was closed for lack of evidence, according to Hebrew language reports, and there was no known follow-up.

Nahmias-Verbin praises current Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev for asking Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open a probe into the claims, following an outcry.

“It was clear [then] that [an outside probe] was the only way,” she tweets. “It’s what is needed immediately and it’s good that @omerbarlev has gone to the attorney general.”

Gantz meets with Moroccan Jews at Rabat synagogue

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Talmud Torah synagogue in Rabat, Morocco, meeting with the dwindling community’s leaders.

Speaking in the synagogue, Gantz hails the growing ties between Israel and Morocco in light of the large number of Israelis who came from the country or have parents or grandparents who did.

“Many of the people in the delegation have Moroccan roots, and this has been very exciting throughout these three days,” Gantz adds.

During the visit, the synagogue’s cantor recites Psalm 24, a prayer for the well-being of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, a prayer for the State of Israel and a prayer for the well-being of IDF soldiers.

“Hearing the prayer for the State of Israel and the prayer for the king together really strikes the right balance,” Gantz opines.

“As the Moroccans have been telling us, this is your second home. Well, Moroccan Jews should know that you also have a second home in Israel,” he says.

Woman to pay NIS 42,000 for threatening doctor who backed vaccines

A woman who wrote defamatory posts about the head of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba Hospital over her endorsement of coronavirus vaccines has agreed to pay NIS 42,000 ($13,300) and has written a letter of apology as part of a settlement, Ynet news reports.

Prof. Galia Rahav, Head of Sheba Medical Center’s Infectious Disease Unit and Laboratory, looks at data on COVID-19 patients (courtesy of Sheba Medical Center)

The woman, who is not named, had accused Prof. Galia Rahav on social media of knowingly trying to kill children by backing Israel’s youth vaccination campaign, and had made threats to harm Rahav and other medical professionals. She had also posted conspiracies about vaccines turning people into zombies.

Rahav, who frequently appears in the media as an expert on the coronavirus, tells the news site she plans to donate the money to nonprofit groups advancing vaccinations and science education.

“I am happy that people will understand there is a price for violence,” Rahav says.

EU says COVID booster should be required for vaccine passes

The EU commission is recommending that the bloc’s vaccination certificate, which has largely allowed free travel of COVID-vaccinated Europeans, be valid for only nine months after the second dose.

“We propose a validity of nine months for the European anti-COVID certificate and beyond this period, its validity would no longer be recognized in the absence of a booster dose,” EU commissioner Didier Reynders says in press briefing.

A pharmacist holds a French vaccine pass after administering a booster shot of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021 in Paris. (AP/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)

French Health Minister Olivier Veran says that starting January 15, people aged over 18 would need to show proof of a top-up vaccine dose to maintain a valid COVID pass, which is required to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other public venues.

Israel, which was the first country to open booster shots to all adults in August, made the third vaccination dose compulsory for a “Green Pass” in early October.

— with Times of Israel staff

Police minister asks attorney general to reopen prison ‘pimping’ case

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to order an investigation into allegations that female soldiers were “pimped” out to terror inmates in order to keep the prisoners happy.

Bar Lev also says in a statement that Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has told him that police have opened a probe into the allegations, which were re-aired Wednesday by Gilboa Prison chief Freddy Ben Shitrit during testimony to a panel probing an escape there.

Bar Lev calls the allegations “shocking and nauseating.”

Female soldiers first alleged in 2018 that they were forced into close contact with prisoners as sexual bargaining chips, leading to them being harassed and assaulted, but the case was closed due to a lack of evidence.

Calls have grown for the case to be reopened since Shitrit’s testimony.

EU okays Pfizer COVID shot for kids 5-11

The European Union has joined Israel and the US in authorizing Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids 5 to 11.

The European Medicines Agency says that a panel of experts “recommended granting an extension of indication for the Covid-19 vaccine Comirnaty to include use in children aged 5 to 11,” using the shot’s brand name.

Man killed after crashing car into Dead Sea

A man, 30, has been pronounced dead after his car swerved off the highway into the Dead Sea.

According to reports, the man lost control of the vehicle after having a medical issue, likely an epileptic fit. A medic says in a statement that the man was trapped in the driver’s seat of the partially submerged car when they arrived on the scene.

A car that swerved into the Dead Sea on November 25, 2021. (Courtesy)

A woman, 23, who was in the car with him received treatment for non life-threatening injuries at the scene.

Prison break panel says it won’t investigate ‘pimping’ claims

A commission of inquiry looking into the escape of six terror convicts from Gilboa prison says it will not investigate claims that female soldiers guarding the prison were “pimped out” to be used as sexual bargaining chips with prisoners.

The allegations, which had been raised in the past but dismissed, were brought up Wednesday during testimony by prison commander Freddy Ben Shitrit, though he was not at the prison in 2018 when the incidents allegedly took place.

“The panel of inquiry wishes to clarify that this subject… is not open for it to probe,” the head of the panel says in a statement, according to Walla news. “We are relying on the relevant authorities to give their opinion on the matter.”

According to the news site, officials from the Public Security Ministry had earlier said that the matter was within the commission’s purview.

Female soldiers alleged in 2018 that they were placed in close contact with certain influential inmates in order to keep them happy, leading to the women being sexually harassed and abused. An initial investigation was closed due to a lack of evidence, Hebrew media reported Wednesday evening.

Ben Shitrit’s allegations drew wide media coverage on Wednesday and sparked calls for the investigation to be reopened.

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