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South Africa, WHO call to lift travel bans as world scrambles to unlock Omicron

Officials in Israel and elsewhere say time needed to figure out whether vaccines work against mutation and if border controls can thwart its spread

Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on Sunday, November 28, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Travelers walk with their luggage in the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on Sunday, November 28, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.

South Africa, WHO call to reverse travel bans, say Omicron mostly mild

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is calling on countries to “urgently” reverse travel bans linked to the discovery of the new coronavirus variant Omicron.

“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the bans they have imposed before any further damage is done to our economies,” he says in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.

Israel is one of dozens of countries that have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbors since South African scientists flagged Omicron last week.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” Ramaphosa says.

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” he adds.

“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.”

The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” says WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO says in a statement.

Although the World Health Organization has defined Omicron a variant of concern, scientists are still assessing its virulence.

Israeli officials and others have said the vaccine appears to be effective against the variant, at least in regard to preventing serious cases or death.

Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, tells the AFP that most carriers of the variant appear to have only mild cases.

Soldier avoids jail time after accused of sexually abusing women — reports

A soldier stationed with a unit that mans the Iron Dome missile defense system has been charged with sexual abuse and harassment, after five female soldiers accused him of taking intimate pictures of them, Channel 13 reports.

According to Channel 13, the soldier reached a bargain with the army prosecutor, and was sentenced to only four months of military-related labor, rather than any jail time.

The soldier was accused of reaching out to the women online and getting them to undress during video chat sessions, during which he took photos and videos of them, the channel says.

The case is the latest of a series of scandals within the military regarding sexual abuse. Earlier this month, an officer was arrested on accusations that he used a hidden camera to take pictures of female soldiers under his command and others.

In a statement, the IDF notes that the Iron Dome soldier was also ordered to pay damages to the complainants and was demoted to the rank of private.

More COVID cases in Israel are thought to have Omicron, labs to start checking all cases

Israeli officials believe the true number of people carrying the Omicron variant to be higher than the two currently known or the 13 others suspected to be carrying the coronavirus strain, but believe they are all in isolation Kan reports.

However, according to Channel 13, health authorities have been unable to get in contact with 12 people who were on a bus with the first known case.

Kan reports that labs will begin sequencing all positive samples this week to determine if they are Omicron cases as they try to determine whether all those carrying the variant are coming from overseas or if there is already community spread.

Health Ministry chief: This may be the most worrying variant yet

Health Ministry Director Nachman Ash says the Omicron variant is “definitely worrying, perhaps the most worrying variant we’ve had yet.”

But he also says much is still unknown about it, including how serious it is, and whether vaccination or previous infection protects against it. “I hope we’ll know more in the next few days,” he tells Channel 13 news.

He says early evidence appears to suggest vaccination at least protects against serious infection.

According to the Kan broadcaster, both people found with the variant in Israel have extremely mild cases. Both were vaccinated at least twice.

Ash tells Channel 13 the closure of the airport to foreigners is a temporary measure for two weeks, and hopefully by then authorities will have more information to decide how to move forward.

Israel may require vaccinated Israelis to quarantine if exposed to Omicron carrier

Despite health officials insisting that coronavirus vaccinations are likely effective against the Omicron variant, Israelis who were exposed to carriers are expected to need to quarantine fully regardless of vaccination status, Channel 12 news reports.

The government empowered Israeli health authorities to implement similar rules following the start of the Delta outbreak.

The World Health Organization says it is still studying the effect of vaccines on the Omicron variant, but “vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating virus, Delta.”

It also warns that “preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron,” among those who already had a bout with another strain of the coronavirus, but “information is limited.”

Second person carrying Omicron identified in Israel

A second person in Israel has been confirmed to be carrying the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Health Ministry says.

The woman entered Israel from South Africa recently, the ministry says.

An Israeli citizen, aged 32, she had been vaccinated three times, Channel 13 reports. She had been on vacation with her husband and child, and they have both tested negative for COVID, the TV report says.

The first confirmed carrier in Israel is a Malawi citizen.

Several others are suspected to be carrying the mutated virus, but are still awaiting final confirmation, Ynet reports.

Arrivals will not be able to take buses or train home from airport

The Transportation Ministry says public transportation will continue to serve the airport, though travelers arriving from abroad will not be allowed to use it, starting at midnight.

That is when new rules kick in, requiring all those arriving from overseas to quarantine for at least three days. While those arriving from “red” countries with high infection rates will need to quarantine in special hotels, others will be allowed to return home to isolate.

“The idea is that those in quarantine won’t be able to take public transportation from the airport,” Health Ministry head Nachman Ash tells Army Radio. “Everyone will need to take a car or a taxi by themselves or with family.”

Those arriving to the airport by ground will still be able to do so by bus, train or shared taxi.

Joint List head slams Herzog for ‘celebrating with supporters of Baruch Goldstein’

The head of the Knesset’s Joint List party aims criticism at President Isaac Herzog for his Hanukkah visit to Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, saying he should not be in the largely ceremonial role, which is usually unencumbered by political disputes.

“Herzog did not go to light the first night’s candle, he went to set Hebron alight,” Ayman Odeh tweets.

“Anyone who celebrates with supporters of the killer Goldstein cannot be president of all Israeli citizens,” he adds.

Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 before being killed himself. Some Israeli settlers in Hebron and the neighboring settlement of Kiryat Arba continue to revere Goldstein.

 

Iran nuclear talks set to restart Monday afternoon

Talks between Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal will restart at around 2 p.m. local time in Vienna Monday, a European diplomat says, more than five months after they were suspended.

The US will also send a delegation headed by Washington’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, which will participate in the talks indirectly.

On Saturday Iranian media reported that the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, had arrived in Vienna, days after visiting Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

In Israel, the Persian-language spokesperson in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office claims that some hardline newspapers linked to the Iran Revolutionary Guards Council are using the convergence of the restart of talks and the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program, to seemingly push against a deal and for a bomb.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Virus czar: Vaccines should work against Omicron variant

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka says vaccines likely work against the Omicron strain, though he notes that the emergence of the viral mutant presents a “complicated situation.”

“There’s uncertainty; we need to decide what is correct to do with the uncertainty; I think the cabinet made the right choices,” he says, according to Ynet.

He adds that “there’s no room for panic. The vaccine gives us good protection, especially against severe cases, and so it’s important to get vaccinated.”

Others have expressed less certainty regarding the vaccine’s efficacy against the variant.

“At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease, but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed,” Prof. Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, tells BBC radio.

A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, say they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech say they expect to be able to tweak their vaccine in around 100 days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Health minister: We have Omicron under control

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says Israel has the Omicron variant of the coronavirus “under control.”

“We assumed a new variant would show up. Thanks to our defensive and enforcement measures, we located this variant quickly. We were among the first to find and isolate it. The matter is under control, there’s no need for fear or panic.”

He also defends the implementation of Shin Bet tracking of carriers of the variant, while expressing misgivings.

“I’ve got a big problem with the use of tracking. I prefer that the Shin Bet deal with security matters and not civilian ones,” he says, adding that “the implementation of Shin Bet tracking is very limited, temporary and has a lot of oversight.”

Herzog lights candle at Hebron shrine, appeals to common Abrahamic heritage

President Isaac Herzog has lit a candle for the first night of Hanukkah in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Speaking at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine revered by Jews and Muslims as the final resting place of the biblical Abraham, Herzog says the Jewish connection to the city and the tomb are “beyond all controversy.”

“The historic connection of Jews to Hebron, to the tomb of the patriarch, to the heritage of the patriarchs and matriarchs is unquestionable. Recognition of this connection must be beyond all controversy.”

At the same time, he also appeals to the shared heritage between Jews and Muslims despite ever-present tensions in the city, which have been heightened around his heavily secured visit.

President Isaac Herzog lights a Hanukkah candle in Hebron on November 28, 2021. (Courtesy/Meir Elifor)

“You won’t agree about everything, but we need to remember that ‘we are all one man’s sons,'” he says according to a statement from his office, quoting from the Bible. “We all have shared roots from this cave. Alongside that we have to remember that our roots are not the only ones that go back to this cave. Especially today, and especially here, in this holy space dedicated to all sons of Abraham, we have to continue dreaming of peace, between all faiths and creeds in this land, and to condemn any type of hatred or violence.”

An official picture shows Herzog, a former head of the dovish Labor party, also praying at the tomb during his visit.

President Isaac Herzog praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on November 28, 2021. (Courtesy/Meir Elifor)

Nearby, dozens of Israeli left-wing activists protest against the visit, with signs in Hebrew and English accusing Israel of apartheid and calling to “banish the darkness,” referencing a famous Hanukkah children’s song.

The protest is held at the entrance to the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba after the military imposed an order banning left-wing activists from Hebron to prevent “disturbances,” Haaretz reports, citing organizers.

Hebron is homes to several hundred Israeli settlers, who live under heavy guard surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of the city.

Morocco shuts down all incoming air travel

Morocco has announced it is halting all incoming air travel from around the world due to the rapid spread of new Omicron variant.

The news comes two weeks before national carrier Air Maroc was set to inaugurate direct flights between Rabat and Tel Aviv, following a visit to the country last week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Israel and Morocco had reportedly been planning another high level visit, either of senior Moroccan officials to Israel or vice versa in the coming weeks to mark the one-year anniversary of the resumption of ties between the countries, though it’s unclear if fears of a renewed pandemic wave will put those plans on hold.

Earlier in the day, Emirates announced it was delaying the launch of a Tel Aviv-Dubai route due to new Israeli flight restrictions to thwart the mutant virus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

High tensions in Hebron ahead of Herzog Hanukkah visit to shrine

Tensions are high in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron ahead of a planned visit by President Isaac Herzog to light a Hanukkah candle at the Tomb of the Patriarch’s shrine in the divided city.

Security forces are being heavily deployed in the city, and roads are being closed near the shrine, which is holy to Jews and Muslims alike, according to local Palestinian accounts.

One video shared on social media shows Border Police officers scuffling with a number of men linking arms and chanting against the visit outside the shrine compound. In the video, police approach the men and tug away a Palestinian flag they are holding.

Minister slams Shin Bet tracking as ‘extreme,’ betrayal of voters

Minister Eli Avidar, one of four ministers to vote against a Shin Bet tracking program to be used on carriers of the Omicron coronavirus variant, is speaking out publicly against the surveillance plan.

“There’s no justification for this extreme step, which is unsustainable and  disproportionate. We promised change, but how can we look our voters in the eyes when we blatantly break promise after promise to safeguard democracy,” he says.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar attend a plenum session in the Knesset, on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton and Economy Minister Orna Barbivai also voted against giving Shin Bet permission to use the tool, along with Avidar, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Shin Bet will only track Omicron carriers, government decides

The reintroduction of a Shin Bet cell phone tracking program will be limited to those found to be carriers of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Office says in a statement after the cabinet approved the program.

Confirmed carriers of other strains will not be tracked, nor will those who were exposed to carriers of Omicron or any other version of the coronavirus.

The program will expire on December 2 at midnight, but will also be subject to re-examination each day.

“This is not wide, blanket use for all confirmed carriers as in past waves of the pandemic,” a statement from the PMO says.

If there is a “wide breakout,” the program will be discontinued, the statement says, without detailing what that term entails.

Kazakhstan plays Iranian anthem to welcome Syrian basketball team

Syria’s sports federation has complained to basketball’s world governing body after Kazakhstan welcomed its team with the Iranian national anthem, instead of the Syrian, to the game at the first leg of Asian qualifiers for World Cup 2023.

Syrian players appeared perplexed when the song was played by the Kazakh hosts at the start of the game on Saturday in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan. Still, they clapped after the anthem was finished.

After a huddle and before the game started, the Syrians sang their own national anthem on the court. The technical team cheered them on.

Syria lost to the Kazakh team 74 to 84. Another match is scheduled for the home crowd on Monday in Damascus, Syria. Syria and Kazakhstan play in the same group with Iran and Bahrain.

At least it was the anthem of an ally. In 2012, a fictional national anthem from the comedy film “Borat” was played for Kazakhstan instead of the real one at a medal ceremony at championships in Kuwait.

Emirates delays launch of TLV-DXB route

The launch of Emirates Airlines’ much vaunted route between Tel Aviv and Dubai will be delayed due to new coronavirus travel restrictions, the airline says, according to Reuters.

“The postponement comes as a result of recent changes in entry protocols issued by the Israeli government. The airline is committed to launching services to Tel Aviv as soon as the situation allows,” a spokesperson says in a statement.

The UAE’s co-flagship carrier had been slated to inaugurate the route on December 6, joining two other Emirati airlines — fellow flagship Etihad and FlyDubai — already making the trip between the countries.

 

Bennett said to yell at minister for lashing out at Shin Bet head over tracking

Reports in Hebrew-language media indicate a heated argument in the cabinet meeting over the re-introduction of a program allowing the Shin Bet security service to track individuals in quarantine.

According to the report, Minister Eli Avidar spoke out against the program, accusing the head of the Shin Bet of “falling in love with this tool.”

Ministers loudly rushed to the defense of Ronen Bar, who came into the role last month, with some reports indicating that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett yelled at Avidar “Who are you to smack-talk the head of the Shin Bet?”

The controversial Shin Bet tracking program, which had been utilized in the early stages of the pandemic, got the green light after the director of the agency reassured ministers it would be used in a limited fashion for a short period, and only for those infected with Omicron, according to the Walla news site.

Avidar (Yisrael Beytenu) made waves in the past for refusing to back coronavirus vaccinations, though he later said he had gotten the shot, ahead of being installed in the cabinet.

Israelis still going abroad, but Omicron puts new trips in holding pattern

Few Israelis are canceling travel plans in the wake of new quarantine rules for those entering the country set to go into effect in several hours as officials scramble to contain the worrying Omicron variant of the coronavirus, according to the head of the Israeli branch of travel solutions firm Amadeus.

Avishay Cohen tells the Ynet news site that there have been fewer than 10 percent of trips canceled by Israelis since South African officials raised the alarm about the variant late last week.

However, he notes that there has been about a 50% drop in the number of new trips being booked.

“Everyone is waiting to get more verified information about changes and new guidelines on the ground,” he says.

Starting Sunday night at midnight, vaccinated Israelis will be required to enter quarantine for 72 hours and take another COVID test on the third day after they arrive. Unvaccinated travelers must remain in quarantine for at least a week, and can leave isolation upon receiving a negative test result conducted on the seventh day.

Cohen says November initially saw a return to normal pre-pandemic tourism numbers.

 

 

Hadera hospital back to work over month after cyberattack

Hillel Yaffe hospital in Hadera is back to being fully operational Sunday, according to Hebrew language media reports, over a month a ransomware attack on the medicaL center’s servers brought some activities to a standstill.

Some non-urgent procedures were canceled as a result of the October 13 attack, but most of the hospital’s work continued using alternative IT systems and pen and paper.

Hospital staff at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center log patient details with pen and paper, following a ransomware cyberattack, October 13, 2021. (Hillel Yaffe Medical Center)

On November 2, the Black Shadow hacker group leaked medical records from the Machon Mor Institute in Bnei Brak online and threatened to release more information if a ransom was not paid.

Kenya said tracking Iranian suspected of plotting attack on Israelis

Kenyan authorities suspect an Iranian citizen who often visits the country of involvement in terror activity targeting Israeli and other interests in the country, a Kenya newspaper reported Sunday.

The Star cited unnamed police officials who said Mohammed Saeid Golabi had been under surveillance for some time and were confident he was involved in various plots, including ones targeting Israel.

The outlet said Golabi was suspected of being an Iranian intelligence officer seeking to gather information on various targets with the aim of attacking them.

There was no official confirmation of the Kenyan report.

Court tells state to respond to Jerusalem cable car opposition

An artist's rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem's First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy Jerusalem Development Authority)
An artist's rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem's First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy Jerusalem Development Authority)

The High Court has given the state 21 days to justify a controversial plan to string a cable car line across the historic Hinnom Valley from West Jerusalem to Mount Zion and onto the Old City’s Dung Gate.

The court says the state must respond to opposition to the plan expressed late last week by Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, who entered her post in June.

A petition against the plan was filed by a consortium of groups, including environmental justice organization Adam Teva V’Din.

Abbas to visit Hamas-backing Qatar Monday

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Qatar tomorrow, a chief Abbas aide says.

“Tomorrow, President Abu Mazen will arrive in the sisterly State of Qatar at the invitation of his comrade His Highness Amiri Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani,” tweets close Abbas adviser Hussein al-Sheikh, referring to Abbas by his paedonymic.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha on August 9, 2018. (Wafa/Thaer Ghnaim)

Qatar is a key patron of Abbas’s Hamas rivals; Qatari envoys have occasionally brokered talks between Abbas’s Fatah movement and the terror group.

Abbas last visited Doha in late 2020 during the buildup to the planned Palestinian national elections. Abbas would later cancel the vote in April, a move widely seen as an attempt to avoid an embarrassing defeat by his rivals in Hamas and within his own Fatah movement.

Ministers vote to okay immigration of remnant Ethiopian community

Ministers have voted to okay the immigration of some 5,000 Ethiopians waiting for years to fly to Israel.

Those included in the agreement have first-degree relatives in Israel and were eligible to immigrate under a 2015 government decision, under which 9,000 people who have first-degree relatives in Israel and had arrived in camps in Gondar or Addis Ababa by 2010 would be brought to the Jewish state.

The decision comes amid rising calls within Israel among leaders and members of the Ethiopian-Israeli community to swiftly bring over those still waiting to immigrate, as a civil war in the country heats up.

Immigration Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked agreed earlier this month on the plan to bring the would-be immigrants to Israel, after reports that Tamano-Shata had threatened to quit over the issue.

Some 4,000 Ethiopians were brought to Israel following the 2015 decision, but reports indicate the number of those waiting to emigrate has swelled from 5,000 to around 8,000 in the meantime.

Estimates indicate there may be thousands more Ethiopians who are also seeking to reach the Jewish state.

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