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Syria says its air defenses fired at ‘enemy targets’ near Damascus

Military sources tell state media that incoming projectiles were heading toward el-Kiswah, which has been bombed by Israel in the past for serving as a base for Iran

Illustrative: Flames rising after an attack in an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, released by Syria's official news agency on May 9, 2018. (SANA, via AP)
Illustrative: Flames rising after an attack in an area known to have numerous Syrian army military bases, in Kisweh, south of Damascus, released by Syria's official news agency on May 9, 2018. (SANA, via AP)

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

Syria: West should lift sanctions to help refugees return

BEIRUT — Syria’s UN ambassador says that if Western countries are serious about helping in the return of millions of Syrian refugees to their homeland, they should begin by lifting economic sanctions against the war-torn country.

Bashar Ja’afari speaks Thursday in the Kazakh capital of Astana where Russia, Turkey, and Iran are holding talks with the Syrian government and the opposition. The mediators are speaking separately to the warring sides, which are not meeting face-to-face.

Nearly six million Syrians have fled the civil war, now in its eighth year, to neighboring countries and Europe.

Ja’afari says lifting the sanctions imposed on Syria would be “the real test” for the West.

Europe says it will keep its sanctions in place as long as “repression” continues in Syria, extending the measures to 2019.

— AP

Trump on Manafort pardon: ‘I wouldn’t take it off the table’

WASHINGTON, DC — A pardon for Paul Manafort is “not off the table,” US President Donald Trump says, drawing swift rebuke from critics, who fear the president will use his executive power to protect friends and supporters caught up in the Russia probe.

The president’s discussion of a possible pardon in an interview Wednesday with the New York Post came days after special counsel Robert Mueller said Manafort had breached his plea deal by repeatedly lying to investigators. The former Trump campaign chairman denies that he lied.

Trump’s remarks are the latest sign of his disdain for the Russia investigation, which has dogged him for two years and ensnared members of his inner circle. In recent weeks, the president, armed with inside information provided to his lawyers by Manafort’s legal team, has sharpened his attacks, seizing on what he claims are dirty tactics employed by the special counsel and accusing investigators of pressuring witnesses to lie.

In the interview with the Post, Trump likened the Russia probe to Sen. Joe McCarthy’s pursuit of Communists in the 1950s.

— AP

Europe rebuffs Ukrainian calls for action in Russia standoff

European leaders rebuff calls from Ukraine for greater support against Russia after Kiev urges NATO to send ships into waters disputed with Moscow.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel asks Kiev to be “sensible” following the request from President Petro Poroshenko, just hours after the European Union fails to agree to threaten new sanctions against Moscow.

Kiev has called on Western allies to back expressions of support with concrete action after Russian forces on Sunday seized three Ukrainian ships off the coast of Crimea.

The incident was the most dangerous in years between the ex-Soviet neighbors — who are locked in conflict over Russian-backed separatist regions — and has raised fears of a wider escalation.

In an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper published Thursday, Poroshenko asks NATO members including Berlin to send naval vessels to the Sea of Azov to back his country.

“Germany is one of our closest allies, and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security,” he says.

But, while blaming Russia for tensions, Merkel shows no signs of being ready to back military support.

“We ask the Ukrainian side too to be sensible because we know that we can only solve things through being reasonable and through dialogue because there is no military solution to these disputes,” she says.


Amid Russia-Ukraine spat, NATO says it has a strong presence in Black Sea

NATO says it already has a strong presence in the Black Sea region, after Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko urges members of the military alliance like Germany to send warships amid tensions with Russia.

Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu says NATO ships routinely patrol and exercise in the Black Sea, noting that NATO ships have spent 120 days there this year compared to 80 in 2017.

She says several NATO allies conduct air policing and reconnaissance flights in the region, and that members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey border the Black Sea and have their own military equipment deployed.

Lungescu says “there is already a lot of NATO in the Black Sea, and we will continue to assess our presence in the region.”

— AP

Houston synagogue fire investigated as arson

Arson investigators in Houston are trying to determine what started a fire in an area Orthodox Jewish synagogue. No one was injured in the fire.

The fire started on Wednesday evening, at the Torah Vachesed synagogue, while dozens of members were inside for a study session, the Houston Chronicle reports.

Police deputies who were in the area entered the synagogue in southwest Houston at about 9 p.m. after seeing flames on the roof of the building. They ordered everyone out.

Several members of the synagogue attempted to run back into the building to rescue the Sephardic Orthodox congregation’s Torah scrolls. But firefighters prevented them from doing so and instead went back themselves to bring out the five Torah scrolls. Two of the scrolls sustained some water damage, according to the report.

“I really want to thank the firefighters and police for their bravery, their sensitivity and understanding,” Rabbi Avraham Yaghobian, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, said. “We were willing to jump in there, even if some of us were arrested, just to walk in and take those things. We would take whatever damage to our bodies. We didn’t want our holy articles being hurt. The firefighters saw how important it was. They were caring.”

Some of the people studying in the synagogue say they heard an explosion before the fire started. The fire started in the back of the building, then spread into the attic and on to the roof, according to the Houston Fire Department.


Slovakia latest nation to mull opting out of UN migrant compact

Slovakia could soon join the list of countries opting out of a United Nations pact seeking to promote an international approach to safe and orderly migration.

The country’s lawmakers reject the UN pact on Thursday, in a 90-15 vote, saying it is not in line with the country’s policies on migration and security. Parliament asks the government to reject the deal when it likely makes its decision on the document next week.

Slovak leaders are divided over the pact. Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini indicated that his coalition government will not adopt it, but Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak supports it.

Australia, Switzerland, Israel, Austria, Hungary, and Poland have dropped their support for the deal and said they will not attend the meeting in Marrakech, Morocco on December 10-11 to formally approve the compact.

— AP

2018 temperatures set to be among hottest on record

GENEVA, Switzerland — Global temperatures in 2018 are on track to be the fourth-highest on record, the UN says today, stressing the urgent need for action to rein in runaway warming of the planet.

In a report released ahead of the COP 24 climate summit in Poland, the World Meteorological Organization pointed out that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22 years, and that “2018 is on course to be the 4th warmest year on record.”

“This would mean that the past four years – 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 – are also the four warmest years in the series,” the UN agency said in its provisional report on the state of the climate this year.

The “warming trend is obvious and continuing,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas told reporters in Geneva.

The report shows that the global average temperature for the first 10 months of the year was nearly 1.0-degree Celsius above the pre-industrial era (1850-1900).


Woman dead, man seriously hurt in West Bank collision

One woman is killed and a man is seriously hurt when a bus bursts into flames on the Route 5 highway in the northern West Bank after it collides with a car.

The accident takes place near the entrance to the city of Ariel.

The bus driver is lightly hurt. Both the seriously wounded man and the driver are taken to the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva.

The two victims were briefly trapped in the vehicles before rescuers could reach them.

Police are closing the highway in both directions and launching an investigation into the accident.

China halts work by team on gene-edited babies

China’s government orders a halt to work by a medical team that claimed to have helped make the world’s first gene-edited babies.

Vice Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping tells state broadcaster CCTV Thursday that his ministry is strongly opposed to the efforts that reportedly produced twin girls, born earlier this month. Xu calls the team’s actions illegal and unacceptable and says an investigation had been ordered.

Researcher He Jiankui claims to have altered the DNA of the twins to try to make them resistant to infection with the HIV virus. Mainstream scientists have condemned the experiment, and universities and government groups are investigating.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. He has said a second pregnancy may be underway.

— AP

Kremlin says Putin and Trump to discuss nuclear arms control

MOSCOW — The Kremlin says that Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump will discuss an array of issues, including nuclear arms control, at their meeting on Saturday on the sidelines of the Group of 20, or G20, summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tells reporters Thursday that the two leaders will start with one-on-one talks and then continue to broader negotiations involving officials from both sides.

Peskov says Russia and the US need to discuss strategic stability, arms control and regional conflicts.

He notes that “we don’t have to agree on all issues, and it wouldn’t be possible anyway, but we need to talk,” adding that “it’s not only in the interests of our two countries, but the entire world.”

— AP

300-pound menorah stolen from Boston-area synagogue and later recovered

A 300-pound menorah is stolen from the entrance of a Boston-area synagogue and found hours later dumped about a mile away.

The six-foot-tall menorah that had been on display at the entrance to Temple Emeth in Brookline, Massachusetts since 1948 was ripped from its base sometime on Tuesday night. It was discovered by police at about 6 a.m. on Wednesday.

The menorah was damaged in the incident.

Brookline Police tell the Boston Herald that it may have been targeted by scrap metal thieves, but that they have not ruled out a hate crime.

Rabbi Alan Turetz tells the newspaper that the giant menorah represents the light of the Jewish people. “It is emblematic of the [ancient] temple [in Jerusalem]. The menorah is biblical, emblematic of the Jewish people … This temple represents the highest priorities native to the Jewish tradition — the practice, belief and desire to spread light to all good people. It is so desperately what we need in 2018,” he says.


Lebanon army ‘detains several hundred Syrians’ in raids on camps

Lebanon’s army detains around 400 Syrians in raids on refugee camps in the eastern Bekaa valley, mostly for overstaying their residence permits, a military source says Thursday.

Almost eight years into Syria’s war, neighboring Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrians, many of whom live in the east of the tiny Mediterranean country.

On Wednesday, the army in the Arsal area detained “33 people with arrest warrants, 56 people without identity papers, and 300 others over expired documents,” it says in the statement.

The military source says all were Syrians, and that those with no or out-of-date documents had been handed over to the security forces.

Those arrested had “committed an action against the law,” they tell AFP, without providing any further details.

Lebanon’s army from time to time sweeps down on Syrian refugee camps, especially those in the east of the country. Tens of thousands of Syrians live there, many from towns and villages on the other side of the Syrian-Lebanese border.


Trump attorney Michael Cohen pleads guilty to lying to Congress

NEW YORK — Michael Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, pleads guilty to lying to Congress about work he did on a Trump real estate deal in Russia.

Cohen makes a surprise appearance Thursday in a New York courtroom at around 9 a.m.

He admits to making false statements in 2017 to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to other federal charges involving his taxi businesses, bank fraud and his campaign work for Trump.

The court appearance is ongoing.

One of the prosecutors working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller is present in the courtroom.

Cohen’s lawyer tells the judge the plea deal involved cooperation with Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the US election.

— AP

US life expectancy drops again as overdoses climb

Life expectancy in the United States drops yet again as drug overdose deaths continue to climb — taking more than 70,000 lives in 2017, a record high — and suicides rise, a US government report says.

The drug overdose rate rose 9.6 percent compared to 2016, while suicides climbed 3.7%, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

As a result, the average life span in America — seen as a key indicator of national health and prosperity — dropped to “78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2016,” says the report.

That puts the average American lifespan at 3.8 years shorter than Israel’s 82.4 years.

The data comes as the United States grapples with a vast opioid epidemic, fueled by addiction to prescription painkillers as well as street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids including fentanyl.


Palestinian youth caught smuggling phones to security prisoners

Border Police officers arrested a Palestinian teen two weeks ago on suspicion of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners held at Ofer Prison north of Jerusalem, police say today.

The 18-year-old suspect was caught carrying eight phones, five phone keyboards, 19 SIM cards, and a memory card into the prison.

Military prosecutors filed an indictment earlier today in the Ofer Military Prison that says he was paid some NIS 20,000 for the smuggling attempt.

The indictment details an elaborate plan by the youth, who apparently sought to get caught by Israeli security forces and find himself taken to the prison. He was caught on November 15 attempting to sneak into Israel at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem and carrying a 5.56-millimeter rifle bullet on his person. He was taken to Ofer Prison, where alert Prisons Service officers discovered the phones and devices hidden on his person and intended for delivery to prisoners inside the facility.

Father of Barkan terrorist charged with failing to prevent attack

The father of a Palestinian man suspected of committing the deadly terror attack in the Barkan Industrial Park last month is charged in an Israeli military court with failing to prevent the attack and helping his son after the fact.

The suspected terrorist, Ashraf Na’alowa, remains at large nearly two months after the attack.

According to the IDF, Na’alowa’s father knew that his son intended to commit a terror attack and that he’d been training with a gun.

Na’alowa’s mother and brother were also indicted in a military court this month, accused of knowing that he planned to commit the attack and doing nothing to stop it.

The father is also suspected of assisting Na’alowa after he allegedly committed the attack. According to the army, he tried to “sell the terrorist’s car in order to get rid of it, and when that failed, he hid the vehicle.”

— Judah Ari Gross

Trump says G20 summit ‘very good time’ for meeting with Putin

US President Donald Trump says the weekend G20 summit of world leaders in Buenos Aires would be a “very good time” for a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

“I probably will be meeting with President Putin. We haven’t terminated that meeting. I was thinking about it, but we haven’t. I think it’s a very good time to have the meeting,” Trump tells reporters at the White House.

The gathering of Group of 20 nations in the Argentine capital takes place under a cloud of Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships, and Trump had threatened to cancel planned talks with Putin.

“I’m getting a full report on the plane as to what happens with respect to that as that will determine what we are going to be doing,” Trump says, adding that he considered talks with the Russian president “very important.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier told journalists the meeting would start around noon on Saturday with “brief talks between the leaders” followed by broader Russia-US talks that could last around an hour.


Trump calls off Putin meeting over Ukraine crisis

US President Donald Trump scraps a planned meeting at the G20 summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s detention of a group of Ukrainian sailors, a short time after reaffirming he would meet the Russian president.

“Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin,” he writes on Twitter.

“I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!” Trump adds, shortly after taking off for the weekend summit in Buenos Aires.


Macron says he will raise Khashoggi killing with Saudi crown prince at G20

French President Emmanuel Macron says he will raise the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

“I will no doubt have the opportunity to mention it with the crown prince on the margins of the summit,” Macron tells journalists in Buenos Aires.

The de facto Saudi ruler arrived in Argentina on Wednesday bidding to shrug off international outrage over the murder in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.


As graft investigations wrap up, Netanyahu replaces defense team

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is replacing his defense team in three graft investigations amid reports that police are about to complete their work in the last of the cases and turn their evidence over to prosecutors and the attorney general to decide whether to indict the premier.

Going forward, Netanyahu will reportedly be represented by attorney Navot Tel-Zur, an experienced defender of public figures in graft probes, including former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Hadashot television news reports.

Former Tel Aviv District Court judge Oded Mudrick is joining the team as an adviser, the report says. Mudrick is a longtime colleague of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will be making the final decision on indicting Netanyahu, having served with him in the past as a judge in the IDF’s internal justice system.

Navot Tel-Zur seen in a courtroom at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, February 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s decision comes as police are said to have largely completed their investigation in “Case 4000,” in which Netanyahu is suspected of arranging a quid pro quo deal with Bezeq telecom giant majority owner Shaul Elovitch to grant Bezeq regulatory benefits in exchange for positive coverage in the Elovitch-owned Walla news site.

Police investigators already submitted their findings and recommendations in the other two corruption cases, dubbed cases 1000 and 2000, earlier this year. The former concerns expensive gifts given to the Netanyahu family by wealthy businessmen. The latter is an alleged attempt to set up a quid pro quo deal with Yedioth Aharonoth publisher Arnon Mozes to back legislation weakening a rival newspaper in exchange for positive coverage of Netanyahu.

Israel rejects BBC claims of mistreatment of Thai workers, mysterious deaths

Israel rejects today a Friday report by the UK’s BBC news network that claimed that Thai agricultural workers in Israel are kept in conditions that threaten their health and safety.

A joint statement issued by the health, foreign affairs, agriculture, welfare and interior ministries calls the BBC report “distorted.”

“We strongly reject the unprecedented allegations reported by the BBC concerning the terms of employment of Thai workers in Israel,” the statement says. “These claims portray a distorted picture of reality.”

The report claimed many Thai agricultural workers in Israel are living in squalid conditions, are underpaid, and are exposed to work hazards from pesticides without proper protection.

The Israeli statement says authorities have deployed “professional enforcement units…to supervise the employment of foreign workers, workplace safety, health and compliance with the state’s labor laws.”

It notes that the Thai workers’ employment agreement has been described by the International Organization for Migration as “a successful creation that has regulated and eased the employee recruitment process, reduced possibilities of collecting illegal payments from employment seekers and protected workers’ rights. Surveys conducted by the IOM to date show that 95% of the workers believe the agreement is ‘good to excellent.'”

And it utterly rejects the BBC’s claims of unexplained deaths among the Thai workers.

The response notes: “It should be stressed that the Ministry of Health received in recent years reports of sudden death of Thai workers during sleep. The issue was investigated by the public health services in cooperation with the National Institute of Forensic Medicine. The investigation, which included the dispatch of a senior medical team to Thailand, confirmed the hypothesis of the sudden deaths as a result of Brugada syndrome. The results of the Ministry of Health investigation show that a significant number of the cases of death during sleep were caused by a genetic syndrome common to Thailand in general and a certain number of tribes living in the north-eastern part of the country in particular. This syndrome has been also been noted amongst other Thai workers, not necessarily in the agricultural sector, in other countries around the world.”

Kremlin surprised by Trump’s Putin cancellation

The Kremlin says it has not been notified of a cancellation of the much-anticipated meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump.

Russian news agencies on Thursday quote Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, as saying that the Kremlin only learned about the cancellation from Trump’s tweet. He says the Russian delegation is already on its way to the G-20 summit in Argentina.

Peskov says the cancellation means that Putin will have “a couple of more hours” for “useful meetings” with other leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies.

Trump abruptly canceled the meeting on Thursday, saying in a tweet that it is not appropriate for him to meet Putin as Russia still has not returned three Ukrainian vessels it seized on Sunday. Russia has also detained 24 Ukrainian sailors.

— AP

Reform movement’s Kutz Camp, incubator for teen leaders, is shutting down

Kutz Camp, the Union for Reform Judaism summer camp for teen leaders and an incubator for modern spiritual Jewish folk music, is closing.

URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs made the announcement in a statement Wednesday, citing competition from other programs.

The camp celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 4, 2015. The summer 2019 session will be its last.

A Facebook post shared by camp director Melissa Frey explained that Kutz, once the “only high-level leadership programming exclusively for teens,” faced competition from youth programs at other Reform camps. The statement said that “the ability to attract teens to Kutz has been in decline for over a decade.”

Kutz staff in a 1977 photo. (Courtesy of Kutz Camp/via JTA)

Jacobs said the movement does not know yet what will become of the Kutz Camp facility located in Warwick, New York. The camp will sponsor a series of conference calls with campers, alumni and staff “to process this information together, and to begin thinking about what the future might look like.”

In 1965, Kutz Camp became the summer headquarters for NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth, the youth arm of the Union for Reform Judaism. The late folk singer Debbie Friedman, whose songs and settings for traditional prayers have been widely adopted by synagogues, served as song leader at the camp in 1969.


Syria says its air defenses fired at ‘enemy targets’ near Damascus

Syrian state media reports that the country’s air defenses intercepted a number of “enemy targets” south of Damascus.

The report in the official SANA news outlet does not identify the enemy in question.

Military sources tell SANA the incoming projectiles were heading toward the al-Kiswah area, which has been bombed by Israel in the past as the IDF says it served as a base for Iranian military activities in Syria.

Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria in recent years, though this has slowed in the past few months after Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian spy plane during an Israeli raid, prompting Moscow to supply Damascus with an advanced anti-aircraft system.

— Judah Ari Gross

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