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Full lifting of lockdown could take a year, Netanyahu said to warn

Haredi Israelis 2.5 times more likely to test positive for virus; virus czar seeks massive fines for rule-breakers of up to $14,500

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem, ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem, ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

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

Schools won’t reopen after lockdown, warns health chief

Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy says schools are unlikely to reopen immediately after the lifting of the coronavirus lockdown — which is currently scheduled to take place October 11, though officials have warned it may be extended if infection rates haven’t dropped by then.

“It’s clear to us that the education system can’t reopen the way it did [after the first virus wave in April]. It may not reopen at all,” he says in a briefing to Haredi media outlets.

“I assume we’ll probably be lenient when it comes to young children, but with older ones we won’t be opening schools immediately. Learning may just have to move online.”

Virus czar: Daily infections must drop 75% for lockdown to end

The government’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, has drawn up targets that he believes must be met for the coronavirus lockdown to be lifted, and will present those figures to the coronavirus cabinet this afternoon.

According to Channel 12, the targets include an almost 75 percent drop of daily infections from some 8,000 to just 2,000, and a decline in seriously ill patients from the current 800-plus to 300.

Israel’s infection figures per capita are now higher than any country on Earth, and officials have said the country’s lockdown is likely to be extended past its October 11 expiration date.

The coronavirus cabinet is slated to meet today at 4 p.m. to consider ways to reopen parts of the economy and early-childhood institutions in order to allow parents to return to work.

133,000 Israelis file for unemployment for the second time since March

Tuesday saw 14,723 people register for unemployment, pushing the total number of Israelis now searching for work amid the pandemic-induced downturn to 909,460, according to figures published today by the Employment Service in the Labor Ministry.

Of those, at least 573,000 are currently on indefinite unpaid leave from employers who don’t know if they will be able to hire them back.

Just in the past two weeks, 178,000 Israelis have filed for unemployment. Three-quarters of them, or 133,000, were doing so for the second time since the start of the pandemic in March, the figures show.

Paris rattled by sonic boom from military jet

PARIS, France — A loud noise that caused panic in Paris was caused by a sonic boom as a military jet broke the speed of sound, police in the French capital say.

“A very loud noise was heard in Paris and in the Paris region. It was not an explosion, it was a fighter jet crossing the sound barrier,” Paris police say on their Twitter account, urging people to stop calling emergency phone lines.

The noise, which was heard all across the city and shook windows, rattled Parisians already on edge after a knife attack outside the former offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last week that the government has called an act of terror.

Wednesday’s incident led to confusion, with people asking on social media about a noise heard throughout the city but that left no trace of damage.

Last Friday, two people were wounded in the knife attack by a man wielding a meat cleaver outside the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in central Paris.


Terrorism charges filed in stabbings near French newspaper

PARIS — A Pakistani man accused in a double stabbing outside the former Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is handed preliminary terrorism charges.

The suspect told investigators he acted out of anger over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad recently republished by the weekly newspaper.

Investigating magistrates handed him preliminary charges of “attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise,” the counterterrorism prosecutor’s office says. He will remain in custody pending further investigation. Relatives and associates of the suspect were released without charge.

Counterterrorism prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard says the Pakistan-born suspect identified himself as Zaher Hassan Mahmood, 25. Ricard says the assailant did not claim an affiliation with a specific extremist group.

Two people were seriously wounded in last week’s stabbing, which took place outside the newspaper’s former offices where Islamic extremists killed 12 people in January 2015. The two brothers involved in the 2015 attack targeted Charlie Hebdo because they believed the newspaper blasphemed Islam by publishing the same Muhammad caricatures.

— AP

Azerbaijan praises ‘very effective’ Israeli drones in fighting with Armenia

A top Azerbaijani official confirms his country has deployed Israeli-made military drones to combat areas in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, and praises Israel’s Harop drone in particular as “very effective.”

Israeli technology “helps Azerbaijan to provide security and safety to its nationals,” Hikmet Hajiyev, a top foreign policy adviser to President Ilham Aliyev, tells the Israeli news site Walla.

“Armenia tries to over-exaggerate the issue” of Israeli military aid, he says, but adds, “If Armenia is scared of the drones that Azerbaijan is using, Armenia should stop its imposed occupation.”

A side view of the Israel Aerospace Industries Harop drone at the Paris Air Show in 2013. (Wikipedia/Julian Herzog/CC BY)

Asked if the drones Azerbaijan has deployed to the front are Israeli made, Hajiyev replies, “Some of them, yes.”

He calls Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harop drone “very effective,” says they are used in a “kamikaze” capacity on the battlefield, and offers “a big ‘chapeau’ to the engineers who designed it.”

Heavy fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh continued for a fourth straight day today, in the biggest escalation of a decades-old conflict in years that has killed dozens and left scores of others wounded.

— AP contributed to this report.

UN inspectors visit suspected former secret Iranian nuclear site

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors visit a suspected former nuclear site in Iran after seven months of foot-dragging by Tehran.

The nuclear watchdog won’t say where the site is located.

Reuters reports:

Although the IAEA says it has the power to carry out snap inspections anywhere in Iran it deems necessary, Tehran had denied it access to the two sites for seven months until the deal was struck [last month] for access on specific dates this month.

Iran has denounced “attempts to open an endless process of verifying and cleaning-up of ever-continuing fabricated allegations,” strongly suggesting the IAEA was seeking access based on information Israel says it seized from Iran.

Illustrative: IAEA inspectors at Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz on January 20, 2014. (IRNA/AFP Kazem Ghane)

Belgium finally gets new PM, 16 months after vote

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Flemish liberal leader Alexander De Croo will be Belgium’s new prime minister at the head of a seven-party coalition government, it is announced Wednesday — 16 months after an inconclusive election.

De Croo’s French-speaking socialist rival Paul Magnette confirms that the parties had chosen the 44-year-old finance minister as premier. He is to be sworn in on Thursday by Belgium’s king.

By choosing a Flemish leader, the incoming government hopes to balance the fact that its parliamentary base will be drawn from mainly French-speaking parties, with the main Dutch-speaking groups in opposition.

“We flipped a coin and it came down to Alexander and it’s an excellent choice,” Magnette joked at the end of the press conference to present the outcome of the negotiations.

Belgium has had no governing majority for 21 months since the collapse of former leader Charles Michel’s government, and it has been 493 days since federal elections failed to resolve the crisis.


Virus czar seeks massive fines for rule-breakers: Up to $14,500

The government’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, is urging the government to massively increase fines for violations of virus rules.

According to a framework he is presenting to the coronavirus cabinet today, he is calling for doubling the shekel amount of certain fines, and multiplying by a factor of 10 fines given to organizers of large public gatherings.

The new proposed fines:

Opening businesses and public spaces against the restrictions: from NIS 5,000 ($1,455) to NIS 10,000 ($2,900).

Violating a self-isolation order: from NIS 5,000 to NIS 10,000.

Failure to wear a mask in public: From NIS 500 ($145) to NIS 1,000 ($290).

And the big jumps:

Opening an educational institution ordered shut: from NIS 5,000 today to NIS 50,000 ($14,550).

Holding large public gatherings such as parties or conferences: from NIS 5,000 to NIS 50,000.

US receives first of two Iron Dome batteries bought from Israel

The United States receives its first of two Iron Dome batteries from Israel on Wednesday just over a year after signing a purchase agreement, the Defense Ministry says, though the American military will likely not buy additional systems going forward.

“These batteries will be employed in the defense of US troops against a variety of ballistic and aerial threats,” the ministry says.

Last August, the US and Israel signed an agreement for the purchase of two batteries — each of which includes a radar array, interceptor missile launcher and command-and-control center — with initial plans to buy both two more units and to consider deeper integration of the Israeli air defense system.

From left, Rafael defense contractor CEO Yoav Har-Even, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Economy and Industry Minister Amir Peretz, Defense Ministry Director General Amir Eshel, and one of the main designers of the Iron Dome, Dani Gold, hold a ceremony in front of an Iron Dome battery that was delivered to the United States on September 30, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In March, however, the US Army said it was scrapping its purchase of the two additional batteries and the further incorporation of the Iron Dome into its aerial defenses.

— Judah Ari Gross

Columbia students pass university’s first-ever Israel boycott vote

Students at Columbia University pass a first-ever referendum to boycott and divest from companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts towards Palestinians.”

The news was released to the Columbia student body via email Tuesday morning, the day after the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. According to the vote results shared with The Jewish Week, 61% of undergraduates who weighed in (1,081 votes) voted in favor of the referendum, 27% (485 votes) voted against it, and 11% (205 votes) abstained.

The referendum does not affect the university’s investments. Columbia University president Lee Bollinger released a statement Tuesday morning emphasizing that the university “should not change its investment policies on the basis of particular views about a complex policy issue, especially when there is no consensus across the University community about that issue.”

A view of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library in New York, Sept. 25, 2019 (Josefin Dolsten/via JTA)

Bollinger, who earlier this year published a statement tying the movement to boycott Israel to the current rise in anti-Semitism, clarified that “questions about possible divestment of endowment funds are not decided by referendum” but rather through a process involving the university’s advisory committee.

Still, the student leader of an Israel advocacy group said the vote, which represents the first time the Columbia College student council passed the referendum and brought the vote to the student body, represents a “symbolic loss” for pro-Israel students.

“After everything that was done to pass this referendum, the president immediately came out with a statement that the university has zero plans to divest,” said Romy Ronen, a junior in the joint degree program of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University and the vice president of Students Support Israel on campus.

“Still, what the vote has accomplished is making the majority of pro-Israel students on campus feel unsafe, victimized and disappointed,” says Ronen. “It makes it feel normalized to boycott and divest from the only Jewish state, a place a lot of us call home.”

— NY Jewish Week via JTA

Attorney general says limits on protests have not yet gone into effect

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit tells the cabinet that controversial new limits the Knesset approved early this morning on anti-government protests have not yet gone into effect.

The restrictions, especially the stipulation to prohibit protesters from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes, will only go into effect when the cabinet formally votes to bring them into force.

The Knesset legislation passed at 4 a.m. after an all-night Knesset session grants the government the power to do so, Mandelblit tells ministers in a legal opinion issued today.

Other stipulations approved by the Knesset overnight, including limiting protests to 20 people or fewer, are already in effect, he says.

The Justice Ministry is now preparing a draft of the new restrictions for a cabinet vote, which could take place as soon as tonight.

High Court says it won’t block a coronavirus law limiting protests, for now

The High Court of Justice has declined to issue a stay on a law preventing travel over a kilometer from one’s place of residence to attend a demonstration.

The law was passed early this morning by the Knesset as part of the government’s efforts to curb coronavirus infections while Israel goes through its second pandemic lockdown.

Justice Neal Hendel has given the government a week — until October 7 — to respond to the Movement for Quality Government’s petition, according to an update by the plaintiffs on their Twitter account.

In its appeal to the High Court, the Movement says the new regulations constitute “grave harm to the rights of demonstrators.” It also says the new rules are “disproportionate,” saying there is little concrete evidence of infection at outdoor demonstrations.

— Aaron Boxerman

IDF shutters storied F-16 squadron as it pivots to more advanced aircraft

The Israeli Air Force shutters a squadron of F-16 fighter jets as part of the military’s Momentum Plan in a bid to free up resources for more advanced aircraft going forward.

Earlier this year, IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin picked the 117th First Jet Squadron, which flies F-16 jets out of northern Israel’s Ramat David airbase, for closure, ending the outfit’s 67 years of operation through all of the country’s wars but its first.

Illustrative. F-16 fighter jets from the Israeli Air Force’s 117th Squadron, which was closed on September 30, 2020, fly during an exercise in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

“This is a historic day in the air force, which is closing one of the most effective and storied squadrons in the force’s history today,” Norkin says at the closing ceremony at the Ramat David airbase.

“The ‘First Jet’ Squadron and its operations are an inseparable part of the history of the air force,” he says.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the 117th Squadron continued training and conducting operations until “the day of its closure” today.

The military adds that all the soldiers and officers in the squadron will continue serving in the air force.

— Judah Ari Gross

Rivlin issues pardon for pandemic-related debt – to disabled single mother

In a sign of the hard economic times brought on by the pandemic, President Reuven Rivlin grants his first pardon for debts faced by those economically hurt by the virus.

The president announced the new initiative last week together with Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn. Rivlin said he would issue pardons for those who qualified and had fallen on hard times due to the virus.

President Reuven Rivlin signs his first pardon for pandemic-related debts, September 30, 2020. (Courtesy President’s House)

According to the President’s House, the first pardon he is issuing today comes from a single mother of three children, two of them with disabilities, who was the victim of domestic violence and had racked up fines and debts from a past drug addiction and sex work. The woman is now in a long-term rehabilitation program, but her disability payments have not been enough to cover expenses, and work opportunities dried up with the pandemic.

Noting she had made efforts to pay her debts, Rivlin issued a pardon canceling the remaining debt.

The President’s House has said no pardons would be considered for debts incurred due to fines for violations of social distancing rules.

Haredi neighborhood preparing mass Sukkot gatherings despite pandemic — report

Channel 12’s police reporter, Moshe Nussbaum, says he visited the Jerusalem Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim today and saw five enormous communal sukkahs being prepared ahead of the Sukkot festival. Each has room to hold thousands of people, he says.

He says he saw no police presence and warns such holiday gatherings would amount to mass-infection events.

Roi Waldman, a senior police officer in the studio during the afternoon broadcast, promises, “we will be there” starting tomorrow to enforce virus restrictions.

Israel’s infection rate is now the highest in the world per capita, and some one-third of all infections are in the Haredi community, where large numbers of residents have not obeyed coronavirus restrictions.

Health Ministry says it will add 1,500 new coronavirus beds by October 15

The Health Ministry says it will add 1,500 new beds in coronavirus wards by mid-October.

At least 750 of the beds will be ready by October 5 and another 750 will be ready by October 15.

One bed in five will be equipped for critical cases and patients on ventilators. The remainder will be for less serious cases.

Haredi Israelis 2.5 times more likely to test positive for virus

Israel’s virus czar Ronni Gamzu tells cabinet ministers that Haredi Israelis are 2.5 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus, indicating an incredibly high rate of infection in their communities.

Some 28.6 percent of virus tests administered in Haredi communities returned a positive answer in recent days, he tells the coronavirus cabinet, compared to 13.4% in Arab communities and 11.9% in the rest of the country.

1,700 new infections today in outbreak in neighboring Jordan

Jordanian health authorities report that 1,767 people have tested positive for the coronavirus over the past day, the highest figure yet in a country that has only seen some 11,816 overall confirmed carriers since the start of the pandemic, according to Reuters.

Sixty-one Jordanians have died from the virus.

Heads of Israeli basketball, soccer warn lockdown could be sports’ ‘final nail’

The heads of Israel’s soccer and basketball leagues warn that the ongoing coronavirus lockdown risked becoming the “final nail” for Israel’s professional sports industry.

In a letter to the ministries of finance and health today, Shmuel Frankel, head of the Israeli Basketball Premier League, and Erez Halfon, head of the Israeli soccer league, complained that “Israel is the only country in Europe that has completely stopped all games and training.”

“We can understand the challenges you face and the context behind your decision,” they write, but add: “The consequence of this stoppage of all activity is dire for the professional sports world in Israel, the 5,000 families who earn their living from the industry [and were already hurt badly in the last lockdown], the income of the clubs, the public’s morale and the management of the sports in these conditions — exacerbating the flight of foreign players overseas, inequality between the clubs.

“Unlike other industries that can hit the ‘on’ switch after the lockdown, soccer and basketball require about two weeks just to get back in shape. If training isn’t allowed until October 4, we won’t be able to get back to operation until early November, a fact that could mean the final nail [in the coffin] for many sports.”

They called on the government to allow professional athletes to return to regular training, a step they said would dramatically shorten the amount of time required to return to public games once the lockdown ends.

UN needs ‘immediate infusion’ of $15 billion for global vaccine fund

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls Wednesday for an “immediate infusion” of $15 billion to a global pool for the procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

The ACT-Accelerator, led by the World Health Organization, has received around $3 billion of the $38 billion needed to meet the goal of producing and delivering two billion vaccine doses, 245 million treatments and 500 million diagnostic tests over the next year.

Notable new pledges included an additional 100 million euros ($117 million) by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the fund beyond the 675 million euros Germany has already committed.

In this file photo taken on April 29, 2020, an engineer looks at monkey kidney cells as he tests an experimental vaccine for the COVID-19 coronavirus inside the Cells Culture Room laboratory at the Sinovac Biotech facilities in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

Britain’s foreign minister Dominic Raab says his country, which has committed 250 million pounds ($320 million), would spend another pound for every four dollars committed by others, up to an additional 250 million pounds.

The World Bank’s president David Malpass said he had proposed “up to $12 billion of fast-track financing” to countries for the purchase and deployment of COVID-19 vaccine, also previously announced.

“These resources are crucial now to avoid losing the window of opportunity for advance purchase and production, to build stocks in parallel with licensing, to boost research, and to help countries prepare to optimize the new vaccines when they arrive,” Guterres says at the virtual summit.


Finance minister calls for easing lockdown

Finance Minister Israel Katz is calling for an easing of the lockdown and a reopening of businesses that don’t have public visiting hours.

He is presenting a plan to the coronavirus cabinet today that calls for the complete opening of all businesses that don’t serve a walk-in public immediately after the Sukkot holiday, which ends on October 9.

The plan also calls for the immediate reopening of early childhood education and the younger grades of elementary schools in order to allow parents to return to work.

Knesset to vote on protest restrictions tomorrow

The government’s new restrictions on protests, a controversial part of its efforts to rein in the country’s runaway coronavirus infection rate, will be brought for a vote in the Knesset Constitution Committee tomorrow at 11 a.m., Channel 12 says.

The restrictions extend the one-kilometer travel limit from one’s home to political protests. Protesters will no longer be able to travel to mass rallies but must hold protests near their homes.

If lawmakers approve the measure, it will go into effect 24 hours later, and is expected to dramatically shrink the planned weekend protests outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Full lifting of lockdown could take a year, Netanyahu said to warn

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly warns that the coronavirus lockdown may last months or even up to a year, Channel 12 reports.

Netanyahu is quoted as telling fellow ministers in the coronavirus cabinet this evening that “our exit strategy [from the lockdown] will be slow this time, and could take place over half a year or a year.”

The government has been criticized for a too-quick lifting of restrictions after the last lockdown in the spring, and for failing to reimpose restrictions when infection rates started to rise in July.

Jewish high schoolers ask California district to act against anti-Semitism

Jewish students and their supporters have called on school officials in Northern California’s Marin County to take action against anti-Semitism at a local high school.

More than 5,600 people have signed the petition addressed to the Tamalpais Union High School District and its superintendent, Tara Taupier.

Last month, an Instagram account associated with the Redwood High School in the city of Larkspur, 13 miles north of San Francisco, called on followers to identify Jewish high school students in Marin County. School officials later said that they believed they had identified the student running the Instagram account and provided the information to local law enforcement. The account was removed.

An Instagram account associated with Redwood High School, above, in Larkspur, California, called on followers to identify Jewish high school students in Marin County. (Wikimedia Commons/via JTA)

“Our safety is threatened by the list and the pictures posted by the student,” reads the petition signed by Redwood students. “The list of Jewish students paired with the image of the swastika and the bullet produces an uncanny resemblance to the use of lists during the Nazi Regime. The idea of going back to school with a student whose beliefs align with those of Nazis is inconceivable.

“We believe the ‘action’ taken thus far by the administration has done nothing to make us feel secure and safe. This student has gotten away with offensive behavior for far too long and this recent escalation is a direct result of the lack of attention given by the district.”


Netanyahu said to shout at Gantz after he warns ‘we’re driving the public crazy’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly held a heated exchange over the government’s lockdown policy during the coronavirus cabinet meeting this evening, according to Hebrew media.

According to the reports, Netanyahu raised the possibility of further tightening the current lockdown, including shrinking the one-kilometer radius that people are allowed to travel from their homes to 500 meters or even less.

Gantz reportedly replied, “We’re driving the public crazy” with the changing restrictions.

The complaint led to what reports called shouting from Netanyahu, who is quoted as telling Gantz: “You don’t tell me what we do or don’t do, this is a meeting and I want this discussion. In March-April we updated the plans all the time.”

Officials said to prepare gradual reopening of schools

Officials offer a first glimpse at plans for the education system in the coming months, amid a national lockdown to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the plan, reported by Channel 13 but yet to be approved by the government, preschools and kindergartens will reopen after the Sukkot holiday, which ends October 9.

Elementary schools up to fourth grade will reopen two weeks later.

Fifth grade and up will be closed for months, until after the Hanukkah holiday that ends December 18.

Faster virus deaths may signal health system overload

Terminal coronavirus patients are dying more quickly than in the first wave of infections in the spring, Channel 13 reports.

In the first wave, the average length of hospitalization before death was 15 days. It is now 11 days, the channel reports, citing health officials.

A cabinet meeting was held recently to consider the significance of the figures.

Among the possibilities: changing demographics of patients, later arrivals at hospitals, or — as officials are reportedly beginning to fear — a decline in the quality of care provided as coronavirus wards fill up and the healthcare system’s capabilities are stretched.

Netanyahu orders health system to ready for 5,000 seriously ill virus patients

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructs the Health Ministry to prepare the healthcare system to handle as many as 5,000 seriously ill coronavirus patients at a time.

The figure suggests there is no clear sign that the steep rise in the infection rate is slowing or reversing.

There are 821 virus patients currently hospitalized in serious condition.

The prime minister wants hospitals prepared for up to 1,500 patients immediately, 3,200 by mid-October and 5,000 by November, according to Channel 12.

While health officials have for months cited 800 seriously ill coronavirus patients as the maximum the healthcare system can handle, hospitals have been steadily expanding their coronavirus wards and training staff to prepare for higher numbers.

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