5 dead, hundreds in hospital after gas leak at India chemical plant
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Coronavirus death toll in United States passes 75,000

Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker puts number of confirmed cases in America at 1,245,622; over 10,000 virus deaths in Asia

Medical workers take in patients outside a special coronavirus area at Maimonides Medical Center on May 6, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
Medical workers take in patients outside a special coronavirus area at Maimonides Medical Center on May 6, 2020, in the Borough Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

The Times of Israel live blogged Thursday’s events as they unfolded.

Israel demands major changes in UN peacekeeping in Lebanon

Israel’s UN ambassador says that his government is demanding major changes in the way the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon operates on the ground and has support from the United States.

Ambassador Danny Danon tells a video press briefing that Israel will insist that peacekeepers have access to all sites, that they have freedom of movement and that any time they are being blocked the UN Security Council must be immediately informed.

The peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, was originally created to oversee the withdrawal of Israeli troops after a 1978 invasion. The mission was expanded after a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah so that peacekeepers could deploy along the Lebanon-Israel border to help Lebanese troops extend their authority into their country’s south for the first time in decades.

Israel has repeatedly accused Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists of impeding the peacekeepers from carrying out their mandate.

“We have seen that slowly there is less places that the troops in the peacekeeping operation can actually travel in southern Lebanon,” Danon says. “So we want them to have full freedom of movement.”

“I have discussed it with the commander of the force and we tell them, `You are there, you cannot move and you can’t inspect, so why you are there?,”’ he says. “`You have to be more active, you have to move freely and you have to inspect all sites.’”

UNIFIL includes more than 9,400 ground troops and over 850 naval personnel in a Maritime Task Force. Its budget from July 2018-June 2019 was $474 million.

Danon says Israel knows that on many occasions UNIFIL troops haven’t been able to enter suspicious sites, “and we proved in the past that Hezbollah are digging tunnels, they are bringing weapons to the border, and only in the last few weeks we have had a few incidents on the border.”

Danon says Israel will continue pushing for reforms before the mandate for UNIFIL is renewed during the summer and will be explaining Israel’s position to council members. He says Israel is grateful for US Ambassador Kelly Craft’s strong support.

He says the United States is raising the issue of the budget “and saying very clearly if they are not effective, why are we spending so much money on the troops?”

“We are not calling to shut down the mission tomorrow morning, but we are saying if they cannot change, if they cannot function, why you are spending so much money?” Danon say. “We don’t want to send the troops back to their countries, but we want them to become more efficient.”

AP

5 dead, hundreds in hospital after gas leak at India chemical plant

At least five people have been killed and several hundred hospitalized after a gas leak at a chemicals plant on the east coast of India, police say.

They say that the gas had leaked out of two 5,000-ton tanks that had been unattended due to India’s coronavirus lockdown, in place since late March.

“We can confirm at least five deaths right now. More will be confirmed later. At least 70 people in the nearby hospitals are in an unconscious state and overall 200 to 500 locals are still getting treatment (at the hospitals),” says police official Swaroop Rani in Visakhapatnam.

AFP

Private daycares to also reopen after reaching deal with state

Private daycares around the country will open on Sunday after reaching an agreement with the Finance Ministry that will enable them to operate in keeping with Health Ministry regulations, the treasury announces.

The Health Ministry yesterday okayed a deal under which government-supervised daycares for children up to the age of 3 will be allowed to open Sunday, albeit with caps on class sizes that may keep thousands of toddlers at home.

But private daycares had been threatening to remain shuttered until the government offered financial compensation for a 40-day shutdown that brought public life to a near-standstill.

Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market reopens along with other outdoor markets, malls

Jerusalem’s iconic Mahane Yehuda market reopens along with other outdoor markets, as well as malls, in keeping with recent government decisions to further lift the restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Video posted to social media shows workers taking shoppers’ temperatures at the entrance to the market.

Late last month, Mahane Yehuda merchants clashed with police during a demonstration protesting its continued closure even as most stores nationwide were allowed to reopen.

According to reports, one shop owner committed suicide due to the financial hardship caused by coronavirus restrictions.

Amnesty slams Palestinians’ freedom-of-expression arrests

Amnesty International censures Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for detaining critics and opponents for expressing their views.

The London-based human rights group says five people were arrested in March and April, including a peace activist for holding a video call with Israelis and a writer who criticized authorities in Gaza for a deadly market fire. Amnesty calls the detentions a “pattern of arbitrary arrests” of Palestinians for voicing their opinions.

“The authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip have violated the right to freedom of expression by arbitrarily detaining individuals solely for peacefully sharing their views on social media. This must immediately stop,” says Saleh Higazi, deputy Middle East director at Amnesty International.

The group, which criticizes both the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza, calls for all those who were arrested for expressing their views to be released.

The arrests happened during states of emergency imposed in both territories over the coronavirus outbreak, and Amnesty says the detentions during a pandemic “puts these individuals at an increased risk.”

In the West Bank, one of the detainees is a former member of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party who criticized the Palestinian leader. A second detainee had also slammed Abbas’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Both were later released.

In Gaza, which has been run by Hamas since the Islamic terror group routed pro-Abbas forces in 2007, authorities detained three Palestinians on different charges. Among them is a writer who hinted in a Facebook post at Hamas’s responsibility for a market fire that killed over 20 Palestinians in March. A second is a cartoonist who criticized the detention of the writer. Both were released.

Rami Aman, a Palestinian peace activist who was arrested for organizing a video conference call with dozens of Israelis, remains in Hamas custody.

AP

Taking aim at China, Trump says virus worse ‘attack’ than Pearl Harbor, 9/11

US President Donald Trump says the coronavirus pandemic is a worse “attack” on the United States than either Pearl Harbor or 9/11, taking aim once again at China, which he says should have stopped the disease in its tracks.

The president has ramped up his rhetoric against Beijing in recent weeks, as the death toll in the US has continued to climb, and as he agitates to reopen the shuttered — and stuttering — economy.

Globally the virus has infected 3.7 million people and killed more than 260,000 — a quarter of them in the US.

“It should have never happened,” Trump says of the disease that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year. “Could have been stopped at the source. Could have been stopped in China.”

“This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had,” Trump tells reporters. “This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center.”

The Japanese assault on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii drew the United States into World War II.

The September 11, 2001 jihadist attacks on that killed about 3,000 people and triggered two decades of war.

So far, more than 73,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has predicted the US toll could top 100,000 by the end of May.

— AFP

Knesset prepares to approve Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal

The Knesset resumes deliberations of the bills to anchor in law the controversial premiership rotation deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

The Knesset members are set to begin voting on — and, according to all indications, pass — the measures in the coming minutes.

Lawmakers had been expected to vote last night to approve the deal, but a maneuver by opposition lawmakers to torpedo the agreement saw it delayed until today.

The deal survived a serious legal challenge yesterday after the Supreme Court unanimously rejected a series of petitions seeking both to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government due to the criminal charges against him and to block controversial clauses of the coalition agreement.

Bank of England: UK economy could shrink by nearly a third

The Bank of England warns that the British economy could be nearly a third smaller by the end of the first half of this year than it was at the start of 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In forecasts published today, the bank says the British economy will shrink by around 25% in the second quarter of the year, but will then start to recover as lockdown restrictions start to be lifted.

In a statement accompanying its policy decisions, the bank says UK GDP is set for a “very sharp fall” in the first half of the year and a there will be a “substantial increase” in unemployment beyond those workers who have been retained by their companies as part of the government’s Job Retention Scheme.

Overall, it says that the British economy could shrink by 14% this year, but that depends on how long the current lockdown restrictions remain in place. Its assumptions are based on the phasing out of both the furlough scheme and social distancing guidelines between June and the end of the year.

AP

Palestinians confirm another virus case, bringing total to 374

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila announces a new confirmed case of the coronavirus in the West Bank, bringing the total number in the Palestinian territories to 374.

The patient is a resident of Hebron who works in an Israeli slaughterhouse in the Negev, al-Kaila says. For months, the PA has accused Israel of not doing enough to protect Palestinian workers in Israel and even of purposely allowing them to infect other Palestinians by not streamlining their return to the West Bank — a charge that Israel has vehemently denied.

The latest case comes four days after some 14,500 workers entered Israel from the West Bank, out of 39,000 granted permits by Israeli authorities, according to the Defense Ministry.

The workers are returning to jobs frozen for over a month, after the West Bank and much of Israel’s economy went into lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The jobs are mainly in construction, agriculture and industrial plants.

The move comes after Israeli and Palestinian officials reached an agreement that includes a provision that Israel will supply the workers with protective gear, including face masks and gloves.

As of this morning, there have been 20 confirmed virus cases in Gaza and 354 in the Palestinian areas of the West Bank.

Jacob Magid

Knesset approves Netanyahu-Gantz rotation law

Knesset members vote in favor of the coalition deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally Gantz after the High Court of Justice said that, for now, it had no objections to the agreement.

The new government is to be sworn in on May 13, ending more than a year of political limbo.

Yamina party members absent from vote on coalition deal

The premiership rotation bill is approved by a margin of 72 to 36, with members of the religious right-wing Yamina party, which has indicated it might opt for the opposition, not showing up for the vote.

Also absent are some members of the right-wing opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, including party leader Avigdor Liberman, a bitter rival of Netanyahu.

Now that lawmakers have approved the bill, in effect naming Netanyahu their preferred candidate for prime minister, President Reuven Rivlin is expected later today, ahead of tonight’s deadline, to task him with forming a government.

Hamas official denies progress toward prisoner swap with Israel

A senior Hamas official dismisses reports of progress toward a prisoner swap with Israel.

Maher Obeid tells the Hamas-affiliated daily al-Resalah that recent reports are just attempts by Netanyahu to placate the “Zionist street” and the families of the civilians and fallen soldiers currently being held in Gaza.

“There are no real contacts, and there is no mediator assigned by the Israeli occupation to discuss the issue in a real and effective manner,” Obeid says.

Obeid adds that Egypt and Russia have been passing messages between the sides, but that neither has come forward with a substantial offer.

— Jacob Magid

Most new COVID-19 patients in NY not working, older, survey finds

The great majority of people newly hospitalized with the coronavirus in New York are either retired or unemployed and were avoiding public transit, according to a new state survey, the first such look at people still getting seriously ill despite six weeks of severe social distancing.

The survey of 1,269 patients admitted to 113 hospitals over three recent days confounds expectations that new cases would be dominated by essential workers, especially those regularly traveling on subways and buses.

Retirees accounted for 37 percent of the people hospitalized. Another 46% were unemployed. Almost three-quarters were 51 years or older. Only 17% were working.

Only 4% were still using public transportation in their daily life, they survey finds, though it also notes that information on transit use was only available for about half the people surveyed.

“We were thinking that maybe we were going to find a higher percentage of essential employees who were getting sick because they were going to work, that these may be nurses, doctors, transit workers. That’s not the case,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo says at his daily briefing.

The survey also shows, however, that 18% of the people admitted to hospitals with the virus had been transferred from nursing homes, underscoring the difficulty those facilities have had controlling infections.

People were far less likely to be hospitalized in other institutional settings. Fewer than 1% were in jails; 4% were in assisted living; 2% in congregate housing and 2% were homeless.

It also finds that African-Americans and Hispanics were being hospitalized at far greater rates that whites, mirroring other studies.

AP

Number of recovered COVID-19 patients now double number of active cases

In its morning roundup, the Health Ministry says there have now been 16,346 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a rise of 32 in the past 24 hours.

The number of Israelis to recover from the virus is now 10,737, up from 10,527 yesterday morning — twice the number of active cases, which is at 5,370.

There were no deaths overnights for the second day in a row, the ministry says.

There are 83 serious cases, 69 of whom are on ventilators.

Russia reports record spike in daily virus cases

Russian health officials report more than 11,000 new coronavirus cases — a new record daily spike that brings the country’s total over 177,000 confirmed cases.

Russia’s official caseload has thus surpassed that of Germany and France, becoming the 5th largest in the world. The actual number of cases is likely to be much higher as not everybody is getting tested and many people infected with the virus don’t show any symptoms.

— AP

International tourism to plunge up to 80% due to virus, UN says

The number of international tourist arrivals will plunge by 60 to 80 percent in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Tourism Organization says, revising a previous forecast of a 20-30% drop.

Tourist arrivals fell by 22% in the first quarter of the year, with Asia and Europe suffering the biggest declines, the Madrid-based UN body says in a statement.

AFP

China slams US ‘untruthful remarks’ after Trump virus criticism

China criticizes the US for “disharmonious, untruthful and insincere remarksת” after President Donald Trump took aim again at Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We urge the US side to stop shifting the blame to China and turn to facts,” says foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a press briefing, after Trump said the disease could have been stopped in China.

AFP

Coronavirus death toll tops 150,000 in Europe

The number of people killed by the new coronavirus in Europe has surpassed 150,000, most of them in Britain, Italy, Spain and France, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources at 0910 GMT today.

With a total of 150,138 deaths out of 1,640,799 cases, Europe is the continent hardest hit by the virus which has claimed the lives of 263,573 people around the world.

Britain has registered the most deaths in Europe at 30,076 along with Italy at 29,684, followed by Spain (26,070 fatalities) and France (25,809).

AFP

Madonna says she has had COVID-19

Madonna says she has had the coronavirus and that it was why she had to cancel a concert in Paris in February, though she is not currently sick.

The “Queen of Pop” says she tested positive for antibodies, which may mean she had COVID-19.

“I am not currently sick,” she tells her 15 million followers on Instagram. “When you test positive for anti-bodies it means you had the virus, which I clearly did as I was sick at the end of my tour in Paris over seven weeks ago along with many other artists in my show.”

The 61-year-old star only played a single night at the Grand Rex on February 22 before calling off the next show, citing “ongoing injuries.”

She later called off two further Paris concerts — the last in her Madame X world tour — after French authorities banned large gatherings in a bid to stem the spread of the virus in early March.

“At the time we all thought we had a bad flu,” Madonna writes in her post. “Thank God we are all healthy and well now.”

Scientists are skeptical about the accuracy of many antibody tests that claim to show a person has had virus.

Some warned that even those tests that meet the US government’s informal standards may produce false positives.

The singer reveals she had the virus after sharing an article about her donating $1.1 million (one million euros) toward research to find a vaccine for the coronavirus.

AFP

Premiership rotation law challenged in High Court

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a watchdog group, files a petition with the High Court of Justice arguing that the law passed earlier today codifying the premiership rotation in the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Gantz is illegal.

The court earlier this week had said it could not deliberate the legislation until it had been been passed into law. Last night it approved other clauses in the deal that did not require special legislation.

The group says that the law, which creates the new role of “alternate prime minister” as a constitutional entity, is part of “a blatant attempt to collapse the foundations of Israeli democracy with the sole purpose of allowing a single person [Netanyahu] to evade justice.”

Critics have pointed out that by taking on the role of “alternate prime minister” when his 18-month turn at the premiership is up, Netanyahu would avoid having to step down due to the criminal charges against him.

Settler leaders accuse Trump of ‘scamming’ Israel with peace plan

Settler leaders lash out at the Trump administration for seeking to “scam” Israel with its peace plan.

“Representatives of the US government are [trying to] sell Plan A under the guise of Plan B. There is no greater scam than this,” Yesha settlement umbrella council chairman David Elhayahi tells the Ynet news site, claiming that Washington is trying to use its support for annexation to force Israel to agree to the formation of a Palestinian state.

It is unclear why Elhayani speaks of two separate plans when both US support for Israeli annexation and the establishment of a non-contiguous Palestinian state if it meets a host of requirements are part of the single Trump peace plan.

US Ambassador David Friedman even said yesterday that the US was prepared to recognize Israeli annexation within weeks.

But Elhayani is not impressed. “Not for nothing is Ambassador Friedman not talking about [Israel accepting] a Palestinian state, but instead the ‘Trump plan.’ He knows that specifying this fact will cause public opposition,” Elhayani tells Ynet.

“We will not agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of the process of [enacting Israeli] sovereignty [in the West Bank]. Sovereignty is important to Israel’s security, but it is not worth damaging even a centimeter of the State of Israel and establishing a terror state in the heartland of the country,” adds Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan.

Ultimately, settler leaders will have to reconcile with the recently inked unity deal between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Gantz, which allows the Likud leader to begin advancing legislation on annexation — but within the context of the Trump plan and its envisioning of the establishment of a semi-autonomous Palestinian state — starting on July 1.

Trial begins over Norwegian mosque attack

A Norwegian man suspected of killing his stepsister and then storming an Oslo mosque with firearms “with the intention to kill as many Muslims as possible,” appears in court, charged with murder and terror.

Philip Manshaus appears at a court west of Norway’s capital and denies the charges read by prosecutor Johan Oeverberg, the Norwegian news agency NTB says. No information has emerged about his likely line of defense.

Manshaus was overpowered inside the Al-Noor Islamic Center mosque in suburban Oslo on August 10.

The prosecution says Manshaus, 22, is suspected of killing his 17-year-old stepsister, Johanne Zhangjia Ihle-Hansen, by shooting her four times — three in the head and one in the chest — with a hunting rifle at their home in the Oslo suburb of Baerum.

Shortly after that, prosecutors say, Manshaus drove to a nearby mosque where three men were preparing for Eid al-Adha celebrations. He wore a helmet with a video camera attached and a bulletproof vest.

They say Manshaus was armed with a hunting rifle and a shotgun and fired four shots with the rifle at a glass door before he was overpowered by one of the men in the mosque at the time, Muhammad Rafiq. During the scuffle, two more shots were fired but no one was hit.

Norwegian media have reported that Manshaus was inspired by shootings in March 2019 in New Zealand, where a gunman targeted two mosques, killing 51 people, and in August 2019 in El Paso, Texas, where an assailant targeted Hispanics and left at least 22 dead.

Norway’s domestic security agency PST said it had a “vague” tip about Manshaus a year before the shooting, but it was not enough to act on because it had no information about any “concrete plans” of attack.

AP

Iran launched cyberattack on Israeli water infrastructure last month – report

Iran is behind a cyberattack late last month against Israeli water infrastructure, Fox News reports.

Tehran used American servers to carry out the attack, the report says.

A senior official at the US Department of Energy does not comment on the specifics of the report, only telling Fox that there is an ongoing investigation.

Report confirms cyberattack on water installations last month

In the context of the Fox News report of an Iranian cyberattack, Ynet reports that a series of water infrastructure installations throughout the country came under attack on April 24-25.

It says that the water and sewage corporations were given an immediate instruction to change their passwords in the wake of the attack, “with an emphasis on operational systems and specifically systems for adding chlorine to wells.”

According to the report, sites whose passwords couldn’t be changed were told to disconnect from the internet.

A cyber security official in Israel’s Water Authority was quoted as saying in a message to the National Cyber Directorate that despite several reports of attacks, there was no “operational damage that would affect the water supply or sewage removal.”

Syria postpones election for second time over virus

Syria postpones a parliamentary election for a second time as part of measures to protect the war-battered country from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Syrian government has recorded 44 cases, including three deaths in areas under its control, while the Kurdish administration in northeastern Syria has reported three cases, including one death.

The president’s office says on its official social media accounts that the vote will be pushed back to July 19, from the scheduled date of May 20, as “part of preventive measures” to combat the virus.

The polls, to be held across government-run areas, are the third since the start nine years ago of a conflict that has killed at least 384,000 people.

They were initially supposed to happen on April 13 before the government in March enforced a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.

AFP

Rivlin hails lab’s isolation of coronavirus antibody as a ‘step toward victory’

President Reuven Rivlin praises the Israel Institute for Biological Research for its development of an antibody that could be used to treat the coronavirus, calling it “a significant step toward victory.”

Rivlin makes his remarks during a visit to the shadowy Defense Ministry-run research center, which operates in the town of Ness Ziona, south of Tel Aviv, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and other defense officials.

Earlier this week, the institute announced that it was the first in the world to isolate an antibody that appeared to be specifically well-suited to combating the COVID-19 virus. Though the antibody was only tested against the virus in a Petri dish, researchers believe it could be used to develop a treatment for the disease — not a vaccine for it.

“The process is complicated and will take time, but every breakthrough of yours is a significant step toward victory,” Rivlin says.

“I fully hope that good news will come out of Zion, good news that will allow us to ensure the health of anyone who’s at risk, that we’ll be able to let grandparents and all of the at-risk populations out from a difficult quarantine,” he says.

The president’s office says he also recommended to Bennett and the heads of the institute to consider opening a vaccine factory in the southern town of Yeruham in order to help it develop and grow economically.

— Judah Ari Gross

President Reuven Rivlin (R) visits the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona on May 7, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Gaza man charged with moving funds for Hamas activities in West Bank

Prosecutors file charges at the Beersheba District Court against a resident of the Gaza Strip for allegedly transferring funds for Hamas activities in the West Bank.

The indictment says that Zahir Arafat, 43, used his entry permit to Israel to transfer some NIS 100,000 ($28,475) from Gaza to the West Bank.

He is accused of conspiring with Hamas operatives in Gaza and a security prisoner at Ketziot prison in southern Israel.

Bennett claims bio lab has found 3 more antibodies that ‘neutralize’ coronavirus

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett claims Israel’s secretive Biological Research Institute has found three more antibodies that “neutralize” the coronavirus, after the laboratory announced earlier this week it had isolated one.

Bennett, who visited the institute in Ness Ziona earlier today with President Reuven Rivlin, says he asked the scientists to “move as quickly as possible” to develop a full treatment and says he instructed the Defense Ministry “to spare no money or resources” to do so.

“I view this as Israel’s ‘Manhattan Project’ to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic,” he writes in a series of tweets, referring to the United States’ World War II-era program to develop nuclear wepaons.

President Reuven Rivlin (C) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Ness Ziona on May 7, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

German military spy chief apologizes for map that didn’t include Israel

BERLIN — The head of Germany’s military counterintelligence agency has apologized for publishing a report containing a map that failed to show the state of Israel.

The agency, known by its German acronym MAD, says today that the initial draft of its 2019 annual report erroneously depicted Israel in the same color as neighboring Jordan.

The agency says the error was “immediately corrected” and an investigation was launched. The probe concluded that the mistake had been caused by “lack of diligence and insufficient quality control” rather than deliberate action or political intent, MAD says.

“I regret this incident deeply and expressly apologize,” MAD chief Christof Gramm says, noting that the agency’s duties include combating anti-Semitism and extremism within the military.

— AP

Christof Gramm, head of the German Military Counter-Intelligence Service, arrives for a public hearing at the parliamentary control committee of the Bundestag, in Berlin, Germany, November 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Virus-hit communities to reportedly be the first to get serological tests

The first serological tests in Israel will be conducted on residents of Bnei Brak, Netivot and Deir Al-Asad, Channel 12 news reports.

The tests check for antibodies associated with COVID-19 and are meant to determine the extent of the population’s exposure to the coronavirus. Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said yesterday that Israel is preparing to perform 100,000 serological tests.

Deir al-Asad, Bnei Brak and Netivot respectively have the highest, third highest and twelfth highest infection rates among communities in Israel with over 2,000 residents.

72 MKs ask Rivlin to task Netanyahu with forming next government

Faction representatives have presented President Reuven Rivlin with the signatures of 72 Knesset members who recommend Prime Minister Netanyahu be tasked with forming a “emergency national unity government,” the Likud and Blue and White parties say in a statement.

The President’s Residence confirms receiving the signatures.

The six MKs from the national-religious Yamina party and Labor MK Merav Michaeli are not among the signatories.

Among the signatories is Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who ran against Netanyahu in three elections but is now to partner him in government.

Benny Gantz’s letter recommending Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, May 7, 2020

Rivlin to make announcement once signatures of MKs backing Netanyahu verified

The President’s Residence says Rivlin will make an announcement once the signatures of the 72 MKs who are recommending Prime Minister Netanyhau form the next government are verified.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented period, during which the country has undergone three consecutive rounds of elections in the last year and has, in addition, faced the coronavirus along with the rest of the world,” the president will say, according to a statement from his office.

He will also say: “In accordance with Section 10(b) of Basic Law: The Government (2001), I must comply within two days with the request of the members of Knesset as expressed in the letter I received… The task of forming a government will be assigned to MK Netanyahu at the end of this process in a letter to the Speaker of the Knesset, MK Gantz.”

EU envoy dressed down over bloc’s aid policy vis-à-vis Palestinian terror supporters

Emanuelle Giaufret, the EU’s ambassador to Israel, is summoned to the Foreign Ministry for an official rebuke after the bloc said Palestinians with terror ties are not automatically prevented from participating in EU programs.

“We demand the European Union immediately cease all support, financially or otherwise, for any element that supports terror directly or indirectly. As past experience teaches, terror is terror and any assistance to terror will bring more terror,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz is quoted saying in a ministry statement.

Netanyahu, Bennett discuss whether Yamina will join next government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yamina party chairman Naftali Bennett just spoke on the phone, Bennett’s spokesman says in a statement.

During the conversation, Bennett reiterated that Yamina’s desire is to understand the “basic principles” of the government, particularly due to its “apparent problems — the ministries of justice and economy being led by the Histadrut labor federation and the left” — before deciding whether or not to join the coalition.

Bennett asserted that Yamina would only join the government “if it can make a significant impact, after supporting Netanyahu and the nationalist camp without reservations for months,” the statement reads.

No agreements were reached between the sides during the conversation, Bennett’s spokesman adds.

— Jacob Magid

Naftali Bennett speaks with Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with the heads of the right-wing parties on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu tells world leaders ‘no one knows what will happen’ once economy, schools reopened

Prime Minister Netanyahu holds talks with leaders from countries that have had success in combating the COVID-19 pandemic to discuss “returning to a safe routine in the shadow of virus” and readying for a potential second outbreak.

“In fact, no one knows what will happen we open our economies and schools. We must be ready and prepared for an accordion effect and the possibility we’ll need to close again,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office quotes him saying.

According to the PMO, Netanyahu discussed Israel’s policy of sealing off “red areas” with high rates of infection to allow for other places with a low number of COVID-19 cases to continue as normal.

During the video conference, the leaders agreed to hold further meetings on reopening schools and resuming international flights and tourism. They also agreed that Israel’s National Cyber Security Authority will lead discussions about “databases, without harming privacy,” apparently referring to the country’s tracking of citizens sensitive personal information in order to locate potential virus carriers.

The other leaders who took part in the meeting, which was initiated by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, were Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a video conference with leaders of countries who have had success battling the coronavirus, May 7, 2020. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Possible Pompeo visit could delay planned swearing-in of new government — report

The planned swearing-in of the new government on May 13 could be delayed by the possible arrival in Israel that day of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Channel 12 news reports.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on April 29, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/POOL/AFP)

Trump, Pence test negative for coronavirus after White House aide confirmed to be infected

WASHINGTON — A White House military aide — reportedly part of a unit working closely alongside US President Donald Trump — has tested positive for coronavirus, but Trump has not been infected, a spokesman says.

“We were recently notified by the White House Medical Unit that a member of the United States Military, who works on the White House campus, has tested positive for Coronavirus,” Trump deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley says.

“The President and the Vice President have since tested negative for the virus and they remain in great health.”

According to a report by CNN, the military member in question is in the US Navy and works in a unit providing valet services to Trump.

Trump, his immediate entourage and guests to the White House are regularly given tests that provide results within about 15 minutes.

However, there are potential gaps in the screening, including journalists who may come within a short distance of the president but are not tested.

The president has steadfastly refused to wear a mask in public, as do his top officials, although the practice is encouraged by his own government guidelines.

— AFP

US President Donald Trump (R) and US Vice President Mike Pence (L) take part in a meeting with industry executives at the White House on the plan for “Opening Up America Again,” on April 29, 2020, in Washington. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Photos show damage to Syrian military facility hit in reported Israeli strike

An Israeli intelligence firm releases satellite photos showing the aftermath of an airstrike attributed to Israel that targeted a military facility near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

The photos from ImageSat International show damage to a building in al-Safira that it says likely was used in the missile production and assembly process.

Maskless MK seen coughing while yakking it up with fellow lawmakers at Knesset

Video footage from the Knesset plenum last night shows a maskless Joint List MK Ofer Cassif coughing as he speaks with fellow lawmakers.

Cassif was far from the only MK not wearing a mask, which Israelis are legally required to don in public. Lawmakers have appeared to do little to adhere to social distancing guidelines, such as maintaining a distance of two meters from one another.

NYC to test 140,000 people for coronavirus antibodies in next month

NEW YORK — New York City will test 140,000 people for coronavirus antibodies between next week and early June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announces today.

The antibody tests, which indicate whether a person has been infected with the virus at some point, will be offered for free by appointment at five locations around the city, de Blasio says. The results will be available to the individual in one to two days and will also be used for epidemiological research, he says.

Researchers have said it is unclear whether antibodies for the coronavirus provide immunity or whether people who test positive for the antibodies can still be sickened by the virus.

“We are not promising people a rose garden here,” de Blasio says. “We’re not saying the antibody test is the last word. It’s not. But it tells you something.”

The city will use tests made by BioReference Laboratories for the free testing program.

— AP

Security cabinet meets for first time in months

The high-level security cabinet is currently meeting, the first time it has convened in months.

US to grant Iraq waiver to import Iranian gas in show of support for new PM

BAGHDAD — The US plans to grant Iraq a 120-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to import Iranian gas and electricity to meet its power needs, the State Department says, hours after a new prime minister was sworn in earlier today.

The exemption would be the longest period of time in months granted to Iraq to prove it is making progress in becoming less reliant on Iranian imports, a key condition of receiving the waiver.

The waiver would indicate a show of support after the inauguration of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who was sworn in after lawmakers passed the majority of his Cabinet appointments today.

Strategic talks between Washington and Baghdad are expected next month and will run the gamut of US-Iraq relations, from military to economic support, according to Iraqi and US officials. Key questions including the nature of US troop presence are expected to be discussed.

Shortly after he was officially named premier, al-Kadhimi spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to a statement from the US State Department.

“In support of the new government the United States will move forward with a 120-day electricity waiver as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success,” says spokesperson Morgan Ortagus according to the statement.

Recent waivers gave Iraq just 30 days to make headway in developing domestic gas supply or else find alternative sources to meet energy needs. They were a sign of growing impatience from Washington as Iraqi elites jockeyed over al-Kadhimi’s proposed Cabinet lineup.

Iraq needs Iranian gas and electricity imports to meet up to 30% of domestic power needs.

— AP

Rivlin officially tasks Netanyahu with forming new government

President Reuven Rivlin officially tasks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a new government.

“According to the request of a majority of Knesset members… I hereby inform you that you have a period of 14 days to form a government,” Rivlin writes in a letter sent to Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu will now have 14 days to put together a government, or the Knesset will automatically be dissolved and a fourth consecutive round of elections will be held.

The new government, which will include Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White, is expected to be sworn in on May 13.

Health Ministry reports 42 new virus cases over past day; death toll at 240

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel rises to 16,381, with the Health Ministry reporting 42 new infections over the past 24 hours.

There have been 240 deaths from the virus, up one from last night.

According to the Health Ministry, 83 people are currently in serious condition, 68 of whom are on ventilators.

Another 56 Israelis are in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms.

So far, 10,873 people in the country have recovered from COVID-19.

30,000 self-employed Israelis forced to reapply for financial help due to problem with website

Some 30,000 self-employed Israelis will have to reapply for financial assistance due to problems with the Tax Authority’s website, according to Channel 12 news.

The network says 140,000 self-employed Israelis have so far been found eligible to receive aid from the state.

France moves toward easing coronavirus lockdown

PARIS — The French prime minister has given the green light to start ending a strict two-month lockdown throughout France on Monday, even though the coronavirus is still circulating in four regions, including Paris.

Laying out a sort of how-to manual for the progressive reopening of France, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe says a balance must be struck between restarting life and the economy while guarding against a second wave of the pandemic, which has left more than 26,000 people dead in France since March 1.

Philippe holds out the possibility that backsliding in fighting the pandemic could mean back-pedaling on the freedom from confinement starting next week.

Important restrictions will remain in place — particularly for travel, urban public transport and schools — until the situation is reassessed in early June. Restaurants and bars are to remain closed for now, along with most beaches.

— AP

Justice Department dropping criminal case against Michael Flynn

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department says it is dropping the criminal case against US President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, abandoning a prosecution that became a rallying cry for Trump and his supporters in attacking the FBI’s Russia investigation.

The move is a stunning reversal for one of the signature cases brought by special counsel Robert Mueller. It comes even though prosecutors for the last three years had maintained that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in a January 2017 interview. Flynn himself admitted as much, and became a key cooperator for Mueller as he investigated ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

In court documents being filed today, the Justice Department says it is dropping the case “after a considered review of all the facts and circumstances of this case, including newly discovered and disclosed information.” The documents were obtained by The Associated Press.

The Justice Department says it had concluded that Flynn’s interview by the FBI was “untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn” and that the interview on January 24, 2017 was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”

The US attorney reviewing the Flynn case, Jeff Jensen, recommended the move to Attorney General William Barr last week and formalized the recommendation in a document this week.

— AP

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, following a status hearing, July 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

IDF to again allow soldiers to take regular furloughs, use public transportation

The Israel Defense Forces says it will again allow soldiers to take furloughs as normal, after nearly two months of limiting troop’s leave because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The moves comes as the country generally begins to return to its normal routines as the COVID-19 crisis appears to be coming under control.

The military says troops will again be able to use public transportation fully. As a result, the IDF will stop running its internal transport service.

The IDF will also close its resort for soldiers who contracted the coronavirus in Ashkelon, sending the remaining troops to civilian facilities in Ashkelon and Nahariya.

Despite the return to normal, the military says it will continue to deploy troops in the country’s old age homes, though this too will be faded out in the coming weeks.

— Judah Ari Gross

Israeli soldiers get off a bus as they arrive at the Gaza border on March 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

US Senate fails to override Trump veto on Iran war powers

WASHINGTON — Congress has failed in its bid to block US President Donald Trump from engaging in further military action against Iran without backing from the legislative branch.

The Senate falls short of the votes to override Trump’s veto of a bipartisan resolution asserting that congressional authority. Trump vetoed the measure yesterday, calling it “insulting” and an attempt to divide the Republican party ahead of the presidential election.

The override attempt is defeated with 49 senators voting in favor of the override and 44 opposed. The measure needed two-thirds support to be approved.

The resolution’s chief sponsor, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, says the war powers measure was not about Trump or even the presidency, but instead was an important reassertion of congressional power to declare war.

“It’s not insulting. It’s our job,” he said ahead of today’s vote. The measure was introduced “to stop an unnecessary war,” Kaine said.

Members of Congress from both parties expressed concern after the US launched an airstrike that killed a top Iranian general in Iraq in January. Lawmakers said they feared that Iran and the US were perilously close to all-out conflict and moved to restrain further actions Trump might take against Iran.

— AP

US pulls 2 anti-missile batteries from Saudi Arabia

WASHINGTON — The US is pulling two Patriot missile batteries and some fighter aircraft out of Saudi Arabia, an American official says today, amid tensions between the kingdom and the Trump administration over oil production.

The official says the decision removes two batteries that were guarding oil facilities in Saudi Arabia but leaves two Patriot batteries at Prince Sultan Air Base in the Saudi desert, along with other air defense systems and jet fighters.

The decision scales back the American presence in Saudi Arabia just months after the Pentagon began a military buildup there to counter threats from Iran. About 300 troops that staff the two batteries would also leave Saudi Arabia, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.

The move comes as the US has sent Patriot systems into Iraq to protect American and allied troops there, who came under an Iranian missile attack earlier this year. The Army has a limited number of the systems, and they routinely must be brought home for upgrades.

Two other Patriot batteries that are in the Middle East region are also heading home to the US, in a planned redeployment for maintenance and upgrades.

It’s not clear, however, whether the ongoing oil dispute or the struggle to parcel out the much-coveted Patriot systems was the key factor in the US decision to pull systems out of the kingdom.

— AP

Coronavirus death toll in United States passes 75,000

The number of deaths in the United States from the coronavirus has surpassed 75,000, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker.

There have so far been 1,245,622 infections recorded in the US.

Israel said to oppose Pentagon chief’s push for pullout of US troops from Sinai

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper is pushing for US troops who are part of an international peacekeeping mission in the Sinai Peninsula to be withdrawn, the Wall Street Journal reports.

According to the newspaper, the proposed pullout of troops from the Sinai, where Egyptian forces are battling Islamic State jihadists, is opposed by the State Department and Israel.

There are 400 American troops in the Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers, which monitors the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Quoting US officials, the report says Israel views the observer force as important to keeping Egyptian military activity in check.

COVID-19 death toll in Asia passes 10,000

The death toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic in Asia passes 10,000, with just under half of the fatalities in China, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources.

With a total of 10,001 deaths and 269,025 infections, Asia has a far lower toll than Europe, which has recorded 151,576 deaths, or the United States and Canada with 79,328.

China, which has officially recorded 4,633 deaths, has registered only one new death in the past three weeks, while the next hardest-hit Asian countries are India with 1,783 fatalities and Indonesia with 930. The virus has killed 266,919 people worldwide.

— AFP

South Korea president says citizens shouldn’t panic over rise in new virus cases

South Korea’s president is urging citizens not to lower their guard down, but said there’s no reason to be panicked amid worries about a new surge in the coronavirus outbreak in the country.

President Moon Jae-in makes the comments in a speech as his health authorities detected a slew of new cases linked to nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district in recent days. Earlier, South Korea’s caseload had been waning for weeks, prompting authorities to relax their social distancing rules.

“The infection cluster which recently occurred in entertainment facilities,” Moon says, “has raised awareness that, even during the stabilization phase, similar situations can arise again anytime, anywhere in an enclosed, crowded space.”

Moon adds that, “We must never lower our guard regarding epidemic prevention.” But he also said “there’s no reason to stand still out of fear. “

South Korea has reported 34 additional cases of COVID-19 over the past 24 hours as a spate of transmissions linked to clubgoers threatens the country’s hard-won gains in its fight against the virus.

Figures just released by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention increased national totals to 10,874 with 256 deaths. The agency said 9,610 have recovered and 10,128 others were undergoing tests to determine whether they’ve contracted the virus.

Moon says South Korea has “the right quarantine and medical systems combined with experience to respond quickly to any unexpected infection clusters that might occur.”

— AP

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5 dead, hundreds in hospital after gas leak at India chemical plant

At least five people have been killed and several hundred hospitalized after a gas leak at a chemicals plant on the east coast of India, police say.

They say that the gas had leaked out of two 5,000-ton tanks that had been unattended due to India’s coronavirus lockdown, in place since late March.

“We can confirm at least five deaths right now. More will be confirmed later. At least 70 people in the nearby hospitals are in an unconscious state and overall 200 to 500 locals are still getting treatment (at the hospitals),” says police official Swaroop Rani in Visakhapatnam.

AFP