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First case of Delta mutation AY.4.2 diagnosed in Israel

Boy returning from Moldova diagnosed with the new variant; it is not clear that the strain is more virulent than Delta

An illustrative photo of a scientist in protective gear working in a lab.  (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative photo of a scientist in protective gear working in a lab. (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Tuesday’s developments as they unfolded.

Amid Hezbollah criticism, Beirut investigator renews summonses of ex-ministers

The judge leading Lebanon’s probe into last year’s massive port explosion has renewed his summonses of two former ministers for questioning, a judicial official says.

The decision by Judge Tarek Bitar comes despite intense criticism from the country’s powerful Hezbollah group of the direction of the long-running investigation.

A supporter of Hezbollah and the Amal movement carries a portrait of Judge Tarek Bitar, the Beirut blast lead investigator, near the Justice Palace in the capital Beirut, on October 14, 2021, during a gathering to demand his dismissal. (Joseph Eid/AFP)

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has accused Bitar of politicizing the probe and singling out some officials and not others. He has called on the government to remove Bitar.

Nasrallah’s accusations marked a major escalation in rhetoric targeting Bitar and were followed by protests in the capital Beirut last week by supporters of Hezbollah and its ally Amal against the judge.

The protests descended into violence unseen in Lebanon in years: Seven people were killed during five hours of clashes between supporters of the two Shi’ite groups and gunmen accused of being allied with Lebanon’s right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces.

Calm restored near Jerusalem’s Old City after hours of unrest

Calm appears to have been restored near Damascus Gate, after some of the worst clashes near the flashpoint site since May.

Buses, car and foot traffic flow freely as police officers idle near the Old City entrance.

First case of Delta mutation AY.4.2 diagnosed in Israel

Health officials report the first identified case of the AY.4.2 Delta variant in Israel. The variant has been seen recently in several European countries.

The patient is an 11-year-old boy who tested positive when returning from Moldova.

Officials are investigating whether the new strain is more virulent than Delta, though they have yet to express serious concerns over it.

Earlier, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was no evidence that AY.4.2 spreads more easily.

Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israeli ambassador to UN lashes out on Palestinian record on rights, terror stipends

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan lambasts the Palestinian Authority over its payments to security prisoners during his remarks at the monthly Security Council session.

Turning to Palestinian envoy Riyad Mansour, Erdan says, “Mr. Ambassador, are you not ashamed to come before the Security Council when your government is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to terrorists?”

While the PA defends these payments as akin to any country’s welfare system that provides stipends to those in prison, Ramallah says it is in talks with the Biden administration to reform the policy.

Erdan accuses Mansour of hypocrisy for speaking to the security council about human rights “while your police forces are beating to death real civil society activists, such as Nizar Banat.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan at the UN, in July 2021. (Video screenshot)

“How can you claim to represent the Palestinian people when 80 percent of Palestinians are fed up with President Abbas?” Erdan continues, referencing recent polling that showed the vast majority of Palestinians want the PA president to resign.

Erdan also admonishes the security council for creating “a false reality in which every Palestinian claim against Israel is the most urgent issue on the agenda, while the terror and destruction of Iran and its proxies throughout the region are almost an afterthought.”

He notes the Security Council’s “absurd” decision to invite Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi, who formerly served as a member of the PLO Executive Committee, to address the body as a member of Palestinian civil society.

“What’s next? Will you invite [former Iranian president] Hassan Rouhani and [former foreign minister] Javad Zarif as representatives of Iranian civil society?” Erdan scoffs.

Palestinian rioting ongoing near Jerusalem’s Old City, in worst clashes since May

Some 20 Palestinians have been arrested in ongoing mass rioting in Jerusalem near the Old City. The Palestinian Red Crescent reports that 17 people were hurt during clashes.

The rioting occurred at the end of a march to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and included stone-throwing at cops and passing vehicles.

Police have been using crowd control measures to disperse the masses. Buses to the Western Wall have been stopped.

The violence appears to be the worst since May, when repeated riots deteriorated into a full-on conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, alongside rioting in many Arab-Jewish towns.

Palestinan envoy to UN says world should pressure Israel to resume peace talks

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour says Israeli opposition to the two-state solution should not be allowed to determine whether the international community will act in order to bring about such a result.

In remarks during the Security Council’s monthly session on the Middle East, Mansour notes that previous Israeli prime ministers who opposed Palestinian statehood were still able to be coaxed into entering peace talks.

“Thirty years ago, when the Madrid Peace Conference was held, it was not an expression of the will of the parties, it was the reflection of the strong will of the international community that left the parties with no option but to show up. The Conference was not successful in itself, but it generated a dynamic that allowed peace efforts to reach new heights and to achieve a breakthrough,” Mansour says.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour address a UN Security Council meeting on the Palestinian and Israeli conflict at UN headquarters, on March 26, 2019. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

“If anybody had assessed the chances of success when [Yitzhak] Shamir was prime minister, they would have thought that these efforts were doomed and therefore useless. The statements and political positions of Israeli prime ministers cannot be the decisive factor to determine if peace efforts have a chance of success,” he adds.

Current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett opposes a two-state solution and says he will not meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, let alone sit down for negotiations with him.

However, he leads a unity government that will see Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a proponent of two states, take the helm in November 2023.

Justice minister details bill that would block Netanyahu from forming government

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has announced details of a bill he is drafting that will prevent those accused of serious offenses from forming a government.

The bill would block an individual from forming a government if the charges he faces carry a potential prison sentence of more than three years.

That person would also be blocked from participating in a confidence vote on a new government and won’t be able to serve as “alternate prime minister” — a position created for the previous power-sharing government between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz and carried on to the current one between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

The draft leaves some leeway — with the head of the Central Elections Committee able to wave it in certain circumstances.

“We must prepare better governance regulations for the future, which fortify Israel’s values,” Sa’ar says in a statement. “We are obligated to prevent a return of the situation Israel experienced recently.”

Likud reacts to the bill with disdain, saying that “Sa’ar, who is scraping the bottom of the electoral threshold in all polls, is proposing an anti-democratic law in the style of Iran, which seeks to rule out the person supported by millions of citizens… embarrassing.”

US envoy chastises Security Council for disproportionately focusing on Israel

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield chastises the Security Council for disproportionately focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“This Council spends a great deal of time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is both understandable and consistent with the agenda. But far too often, the substance of these discussions is centered almost entirely around criticism of Israel and counterattacks,” she says in her remarks.

“I sincerely hope that going forward, Council members will do their best to take a more balanced approach. Also, there are other countries and situations in the region that merit Security Council attention and should not be neglected,” Thomas-Greenfield says.

The envoy goes on to state that “humanitarian actors need regular, predictable, and sustained access to Gaza,” in an apparent criticism of Israel, which controls most of the crossings into the blockaded coastal enclave.

She urges countries to follow the Biden administration’s lead after it donated $318 million to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, while calling for the organization to “undertake the necessary reforms to ensure its financial sustainability.”

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks to reporters during a news conference, at United Nations headquarters. on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Turning to Hamas, Thomas-Greenfield calls on the Gaza ruling group to end its “cruel detention of two Israeli civilians,” Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu, along with the bodies of fallen soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

Thomas-Greenfield expresses the US’ deep concern with recent settler violence against Palestinians and their property, and calls on the Israeli government to investigate the attacks, “including the response by Israeli security forces,” who have often been filmed standing idly by without intervening.

UN Mideast envoy: ‘We can no longer lurch from crisis to crisis’

United Nations envoy Tor Wennesland briefs the Security Council about the situtation in the Middle East.

Wennesland tells the council that in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, “political stagnation is fueling tensions, instability and a deepening sense of hopelessness.”

He warns that “we can no longer lurch from crisis to crisis. Our approach cannot be to address the current situation piecemeal – incident by incident, on a short-term day-to-day basis as stand-alone issues.”

He calls for “a broader package of parallel steps by the government of Israel, the PA and the international community” to “address key political, security and economic challenges that are preventing progress.”

Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, addresses the Security Council, on October 19, 2021. (Video screenshot)

UN atomic agency head to visit Iran as nuke talks uncertain

The head of the UN’s atomic watchdog plans to visit Iran before the end of next month, amid questions about whether Iran will return to negotiations aimed at reviving the languishing 2015 nuclear deal.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi says he intends to visit Tehran “soon” to discuss and hopefully resolve specific concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is in violation of several aspects of the 2015 deal that the IAEA is charged with monitoring, and has suspended some elements of other cooperation with the watchdog.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi (left) speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on Monday, October 18, 2021, in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department in Washington, ahead of a meeting. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

On a visit to Washington, Grossi tells reporters that he expects to go to Iran before the next meeting of the IAEA board of governors in late November. Some countries are pushing for the board to condemn Iran’s nuclear activity, including violations of the nuclear deal.

Grossi, who met yesterday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, would not predict whether the IAEA board would take such action, saying it will likely depend on what Iran does in the meantime.

UK says it is monitoring subvariant of COVID Delta strain

Britain says it is monitoring a subvariant of the Delta strain of the coronavirus, which has been seen in a growing number of cases.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman says the government is keeping a “close eye” on the AY.4.2 variant, but says there is no evidence it spreads more easily.

“As you would expect, we are monitoring it closely and won’t hesitate to take action if necessary,” he tells reporters.

Overall infection rates in Britain remain stubbornly high, despite high rates of vaccination, and on Monday nearly 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded.

Trump: Powell ‘made plenty of mistakes. But anyway, may he rest in peace!’

Donald Trump has launched a broadside at the late Colin Powell and at the media for supposedly coddling him in death.

“Wonderful to see Colin Powell, who made big mistakes on Iraq and famously, so-called weapons of mass destruction, be treated in death so beautifully by the Fake News Media,” Trump says in a statement. Hope that happens to me someday.”

He says Powell was “a classic RINO,” an acronym for Republican In Name Only, “if even that, always being the first to attack other Republicans.”

In this December 5, 2020 file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally for Senate Republican candidates, in Valdosta, Georgia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Powell made no secret of his distaste for Trump and the fact that he did not vote for him in either 2016 or 2020.

“He made plenty of mistakes. But anyway, may he rest in peace!” the former president concludes.

Top Taliban minister praises suicide bombers

One of the most senior figures in Afghanistan’s Taliban government has hailed the sacrifices of suicide bombers at a meeting with families of the “martyrs” in Kabul.

Interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, listed as a terrorist by the United States with a $10 million bounty for his arrest, met the relatives yesterday at an upscale hotel in the capital.

Pro-Taliban social media accounts and local media today published images of the minister praying and embracing men in a glitzy ballroom.

Gantz tells Knesset panel increased defense budget is necessary to ready Iran strike

Defense Minister Benny Gantz appears before the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to justify the government’s budget increase for the military, warning that the additional funds are necessary in order to prepare for a potential strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

This summer, the government announced that it had agreed on a NIS 58 billion ($17.5 billion) defense budget for 2022, an increase from the previous defense budget which was set in 2019 and which has remained in force as the governments since then failed to pass a new one.

“Israel is challenged militarily on many fronts, and therefore there is great importance to approving a defense budget, following years without a fixed budget, which has — to a certain extent — damaged our ability to act, our ability to have efficient communication, and to build up our forces in a more effective way,” Gantz says.

Head of the Blue and White party, Defense Benny Gantz leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on October 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In his comments, the defense minister says the most significant threat facing Israel and the one for which the military most needs to allocate its resources is Iran and its nuclear program.

“We see that Iran is advancing toward the level of enrichment that would allow it, when it wished, to become a threshold state — and we are making every effort to prevent that. We will invest in our offensive and defensive capabilities, improve our technological superiority, and accelerate our efforts in order to ensure that — despite the fact that Iran is foremost a global and regional challenge — Israel will always have the ability to defend its citizens with its own forces,” he says.

Gantz says the defense budget is also needed in order to prepare the military for a potential two-front war, to reinforce defenses for the civilian home front, to raise the salaries of conscripted soldiers and to provide better benefits to career soldiers.

Palestinians clash with police in Jerusalem, hurl stones at vehicles

Clashes erupt between Palestinians and police near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, as rare daytime violence at the flashpoint area continues.

Police say Palestinians hurled stones at passing buses, shattering windows. In videos from the scene, police can be seen throwing stun grenades and tear gas canisters at Palestinians gathered at the site. They say 10 people were arrested.

Violent clashes between police and Palestinians at Damascus Gate played a key role in the escalation of violence leading up the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza terror groups in May. In recent weeks, tensions have risen again at the scene: Police say they have arrested dozens of alleged rioters over the past few weeks during repeated rounds of clashes.

Palestinian media reports charge that Israeli police instigated the incidents. Footage from recent scuffles at Damascus Gate appears to show some police violence, including one incident in which a policeman struck a Palestinian teenager with a club for no evident reason.

Comptroller: State’s income from gas drilling far below expectations

On another subject, the comptroller says that despite authorities’ predictions that taxes from gas drilling off Israel’s coast would amount to some NIS 12.5 billion ($3.8 billion) by the end of 2022, the country is way off target.

So far, he says, income has amounted to NIS 741 million ($230 million), or some 6% of the expected sum.

Matanyahu Englman finds that the government’s efforts to collect taxes from gas drillers are slow and insufficient. He says the Energy Ministry has failed to follow world trends on taxation.

Comptroller says Tax Authority owes Israelis $1.1 billion

In a new report, the state comptroller says the Israel Tax Authority owes Israelis some NIS 3.6 billion ($1.1 billion) due to citizens paying more taxes than they should.

The comptroller says various errors have resulted in hundreds of thousands missing out on benefits, and that the Tax Authority has not done enough to fix the problems causing the situation, though they have been known since a 2015 comptroller report.

The report says that authority fails to notify citizens that they are owed money even when it has the data showing that fact.

UN: 10,000 children killed or maimed during Yemen’s long war

More than 10,000 children in Yemen have been killed or injured in violence linked to years of war in the impoverished country, a spokesman for UNICEF says.

The verified tally from the United Nations’ reporting and monitoring operation provides what is surely an undercount of the real toll because many more child deaths and injuries go unrecorded, UNICEF spokesman James Elder tells reporters. He says the new numbers amount to four children killed or maimed every day, a “shameful milestone” since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the war in 2015.

The UN has long considered Yemen — where war resumed in late 2014 after rebels took over the capital, Sanaa — as home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The country on the Arabian Peninsula faces the combined troubles of protracted conflict, economic devastation, and crumbling social and health services, as well as underfunded UN assistance programs.

Children who were injured in a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike rest in a hospital in Saada, Yemen, August 12, 2018. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Military opens up roads near Gaza after gunfire concerns

The military has opened up roads near the Gaza border that were blocked off earlier.

The military had been on alert after receiving information on possible plans by Palestinian groups to fire toward the area.

Bennett meets UAE, Bahrain envoys, is invited to Abu Dhabi for state visit

UAE Ambassador to Israel Muhammad Al Khajah with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, October 19, 2021 (Haim Tzah/GPO)
UAE Ambassador to Israel Muhammad Al Khajah with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, October 19, 2021 (Haim Tzah/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets for lunch with the envoys of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in Israel.

The UAE Ambassador Muhammad Mahmoud Al Khajah invites Bennett to an official state visit in the UAE, on behalf of the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The three discuss expanding ties between the nations and strengthening the Abraham Accords further.

“The stronger the bonds of our countries become, the stronger regional security and stability will become,” Bennett says.

Ayman Odeh, Itamar Ben Gvir clash at hospital by Palestinian prisoner’s bed

Two MKs from the far left and far right had a physical altercation at a Rehovot hospital earlier.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh tussled with Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit, as the latter attempted to reach a Palestinian hunger-striking prisoner at Kaplan Medical Center.

The prisoner is being treated there due to his condition as he refuses to eat. He is protesting being held under administrative detention, a process by which security prisoners can be held for lengthy periods of time without being charged. The allegations against him are not known, though his family is known to have strong ties to Hamas.

Odeh was seen blocking Ben Gvir from passing, pushing him and telling him “You’re a little terrorist, you won’t get in, go away.”

Ben Gvir has said he plans to file a complaint against Odeh for violence.

US to allow vaccine booster ‘mix and match’ – reports

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to allow “mix and match” coronavirus vaccine boosting, in which people get a different additional shot to the dose they initially received, US media reports.

Citing sources familiar with the situation, the New York Times said the FDA might make the announcement on Wednesday, when it is also expected to authorize boosters for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

A preliminary study released in the United States last week showed that people who have received the J&J vaccine may benefit from a booster dose of a different, messenger-RNA vaccine such as Pfizer or Moderna.

But multiple reports quoted people familiar with the discussions as saying one shot may not be recommended over another, and the FDA could say using the same vaccine is preferable when possible.

A doctor fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, file)

Mideast economy recovering but social unrest on the rise – IMF

The Middle East and North Africa are on track to economic recovery, but rising social unrest and unemployment are threatening to hinder progress, the International Monetary Fund says.

The MENA region, which includes the Arab countries and Iran, saw its real GDP growth shrink by 3.1 percent in 2020 due to lower oil prices and sweeping lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

But with rapid vaccination campaigns, particularly in the Gulf nations, the IMF predicts that GDP growth will rise to 4.1% this year, a slight upgrade of 0.1% from the last projection in April.

“The region is going through recovery in 2021. Since the beginning of the year, we see progress in the economic performance,” says Jihad Azour, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF.

Nazi secretary in court in Germany after trying to flee trial

The trial of a 96-year-old former Nazi concentration camp secretary who attempted to flee before proceedings began has started in Germany.

The first woman to be prosecuted for Nazi-era crimes in decades, Irmgard Furchner is charged with complicity in the murder of more than 10,000 people at Stutthof camp in occupied Poland.

Furchner left the retirement home where she lives on September 30, as her trial was set to begin, and headed to a metro station.

The pensioner managed to evade police for several hours before being apprehended in the nearby city of Hamburg and temporarily held in custody by authorities.

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