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Temple Mount Islamic council vows to keep Gate of Mercy site open

Waqf Council rejects court order to close prayer hall sealed in 2003 for housing terror-linked group, amid recent protests at the site

An Israeli border police officer patrols an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on February 19, 2019.  (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
An Israeli border police officer patrols an entrance to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, on February 19, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

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

Israeli spacecraft Beresheet sends home first selfie from 23,364 miles away

At a distance of 37,600 kilometers (23,364 miles) from Earth, the Moon-bound Israeli spacecraft Beresheet turns slowly to snap a photo of its plaque against a background of a distant Earth.

The background shows the Australian continent.

The plaque shows the Israeli flag with the inscriptions, “Am Israel Hai,” or “the Jewish People Lives,” and in English, “Small Country Big Dreams.”

Photo taken by the Beresheet spacecraft in which an Israeli flag can be seen on a plaque with the inscription, “Am Israel Hai,” or “The Jewish People Lives,” and in English, “Small country, big dreams,” taken 37,600 kilometers from Earth. (Courtesy SpaceIL/IAI)

Beresheet is the first Israeli spacecraft to be launched to the Moon. If it lands successfully as planned on April 11, little Israel will be only the fourth nation in history to land a craft on Earth’s satellite.

— Melanie Lidman

Half of Israelis say it’s harder to choose a party than in the past

Half of Israelis say it’s harder to pick a party to vote for than it was in the past, a major new survey of political attitudes finds.

The greatest difficulty in choosing lies in the center, Israelis say.

The survey, by the Guttman Center at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, asked: “Do you agree or disagree with the following sentence: ‘Because of the many changes that have recently occurred in the party map, it is harder for me than in the past to decide which party to vote for’?”

Overall, 50 percent say it is harder. More than half, 56%, of respondents who say they come from the “left” say so. On the self-defined “moderate left” it drops to 49%. On the “moderate right” it’s 50% and on the “right” 46%. Among those saying they’re the “center” the figure is highest of all: 67%.

The Israeli political center may have the most indecisive voters, but they’re also the most optimistic ones.

The survey asks respondents how optimistic they are about the future. In general, the left is pessimistic, the right optimistic, and the center most optimistic of them all.

Just 38% of respondents who say they come from the “left” are “very optimistic or moderately optimistic” about Israel’s future. On the “moderate left” it rises to 50%. On the “moderate right,” 71% and on the “right” 75%. Among those saying they’re the “center” the figure is highest of all: 79%.

Explosive device launched from Gaza said to explode in Eshkol region

An explosive device attached to a cluster of balloons that was launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel exploded in an agricultural field in the Eshkol region, the local government says.

“According to farmers, there was a blast, but it did not cause harm to people or property,” the Eshkol Regional Council says in a statement.

— Judah Ari Gross

Balad party sues journalist for calling it a ‘terror group’

The Balad political party is suing prominent political analyst Amit Segal for libel after he called the Palestinian-nationalist party a “terror group” masquerading as a political party.

The suit asking for NIS 280,000 ($77,000) in damages is filed at the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court today.

Balad insists it opposes targeting civilians with violence, but its lawmakers have expressed support for Islamist terror groups like Hamas and justified or supported Palestinian violence against Israelis.

Defeat of IS looms as hundreds leave last area in Syria

OUTSIDE BAGHOUZ, Syria — Hundreds of people leave the last area held by the Islamic State group in eastern Syria on Tuesday where they gathered in a massive reception area to be searched and screened by US-backed fighters.

Some of those who gathered outside the village of Baghouz say they had been waiting since the previous night when hundreds left the IS-held pocket. The latest wave of evacuations brings the final defeat of the extremists’ so-called “caliphate” at the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces closer.

Officers from the US-led coalition were seen screening the men who had left the IS-held area to determine if they were militants or civilians.

The exodus comes three days after the US-backed forces resumed their push on IS fighters holed up in Baghouz on the banks of the Euphrates River, close to the Iraqi border.

In past weeks, thousands of civilians left the speck of territory in organized evacuations following an earlier halt in fighting. The Kurdish-led forces said their fighters were surprised by the large number of civilians, including IS family members, cooped up in the tiny area squeezed smaller and smaller by intermittent offensives.

— AP

Blue and White wins iconic mock election at Ramat Gan high school

The Blich High School in Ramat Gan, long seen as a bellwether of election results, delivers an astounding 47 percent of the vote in its mock election to the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz.

That’s well ahead of polls of actual voters that give the current election vote frontrunner (though not necessarily the most likely to form the next coalition government) roughly 30% of the electorate.

In second place in the Blich vote comes Likud at 20%, followed by Meretz at 10%. Kulanu got 7%, Zehut 4.5%, and the storied but now collapsing Labor party 3%.

The high school’s longstanding tradition of holding a mock election among students once successfully predicted most elections, including the upsets of 1977 with Likud’s first-ever victory and the narrow win in 1992 for Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor party.

But the record is less good in recent years. In 2013 Yesh Atid won the school’s election and Zionist Union did in 2015. In the real elections, Likud handily beat both.

US-funded TV network fires staff over anti-Semitic report on George Soros

At least eight staff members of a US government-funded media company that broadcasts in Cuba are fired for airing a segment that referred to George Soros as a “multimillionaire Jew” who was “the architect of the financial collapse of 2008.”

The three-part report on Radio and Television Marti, which broadcasts news to Cuba to promote American foreign policy interests, also called Soros a “left-wing billionaire of Hungarian-Jewish origin” and a “nonpracticing Jew of flexible morals” and raised far-right conspiracy theories about him.

The original broadcast aired in May; it gained traction at the end of October when a blog on Cuban issues, The Cuban Triangle, raised questions about the broadcast after Soros received a bomb threat.

The firings come after a months-long investigation by the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which oversees the Marti stations, the Miami Herald reports. The office falls under the jurisdiction of the US Agency for Global Media, or USAGM. John Lansing, said Wednesday the report was “a blatantly anti-Semitic video segment about George Soros that was deeply offensive and wholly inconsistent with our professional standards and ethics.”

Soros, a Holocaust survivor and philanthropist who funds liberal and pro-democracy causes, has been a frequent target of the far right in the United States and abroad, who often invoke anti-Semitic tropes to exaggerate his influence in politics and economic affairs.

— JTA

Ex-chief rabbi convicted of graft gets early release from prison

Disgraced former Israeli chief rabbi Yona Metzger will be released from prison early, the Israel Prisons Service Parole Board decides.

Metzger has served a year and 10 months of his 3.5-year sentence after he was convicted for taking NIS 5 million in bribes.

The early release is part of a rehabilitation program run by the Prisons Service. The State Prosecution did not object to the decision.

Swedish Academy to announce 2 Nobel literature prizes in October

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The foundation behind the Nobel Prize in literature says the winners of the 2019 and the delayed 2018 editions of the prestigious award will both be announced in October by the Swedish Academy, saying that the scandal-rocked body has revamped itself and restored trust.

The Nobel Foundation warns that another group could be picked to award the prize if the academy does not improve its tarnished image.

The foundation says it “believes that the steps that the Swedish Academy has taken and intends to take will create good opportunities for restoring trust in the Academy as a prize-awarding institution,” according to a statement.

The literature prize was canceled last year after a mass exodus at the exclusive Swedish Academy following sex abuse allegations. Jean-Claude Arnault, husband of a former academy member, was convicted last year for two rapes in 2011. Arnault allegedly also leaked the name of Nobel Prize literature winners seven times.

The academy announced May 4 that the prize would be not awarded in 2018 “in view of the currently diminished Academy and the reduced public confidence in the Academy.” It was the first time since wartime 1943 that the prestigious award was not handed out.

— AP

Blue and White platform includes commitment to stalled Western Wall deal

The Blue and White party platform, set to be released this week, will include a commitment to implement a currently frozen deal to expand the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall and establish a first-of-its-kind body made up of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to oversee the site, The Times of Israel learns.

The proposal comes as part of a “specific commitment to rehabilitating the relationship with the Diaspora, born out of a sensitivity to the needs and views of Diaspora Jewry,” a Blue and White source tells The Times of Israel.

According to the source, the party will call for the implementation of the full agreement reached between the government and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders in January 2016, overturning a later decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the behest of his Haredi coalition partners delayed the plan indefinitely.

The original plan, which Blue and White will push for, includes three key provisions: a joint entrance to the main Western Wall plaza and the egalitarian prayer space; a new permanent pavilion greatly enlarging the modest prayer deck currently at the site; and, perhaps most controversially for Haredi parties, a joint council made up of representatives from liberal streams of Judaism and government representatives that would be in charge of overseeing the site.

— Raoul Wootliff

US white supremacist propaganda efforts up 182% in 2018, ADL says

White supremacists dramatically stepped up their propaganda distribution efforts targeting residential neighborhoods and campuses in 2018, the Anti-Defamation League says.

White supremacists’ propaganda distribution efforts — incidents in which members of the group handed out or posted their literature and messages — increased 182 percent, with 1,187 incidents across the US in 2018, up from 421 total incidents reported in 2017, according to an ADL count.

The number of racist rallies and demonstrations also rose last year, with 91 white supremacist rallies or other public events attended by white supremacists held in 2018, up from 76 the previous year. Hate groups also increasingly used so-called “flash mob” tactics to avoid advance publicity and scrutiny.

In most cases the identities of individual members were successfully hidden, according to ADL.

“Posting fliers is a tried-and-true tactic for hate groups, one that enables them to spread hateful ideas and sow fear across an entire community,” says ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt. “Hate groups were emboldened in 2018, but their increasing reliance on hate leafleting indicates that most of their members understand this is a fringe activity and are unwilling to risk greater public exposure or arrest.”

— JTA

Roads shuttered around the country due to floods

Roads are being closed in the north and south due to flooding amid unexpectedly strong rainfall today.

Route 444 near Taibe is closed by police after the main entrance to the city floods. Police rescued a motorist earlier today whose car was trapped in the floodwaters.

In the south, sections of routes 40, 25 and 31 are closed amid expectations of flash floods.

Flooding also struck Qalanswa and Modiin.

The Ein Gedi oasis and hiking area near the Dead Sea is closed to visitors.

Rains are expected to continue into the night, and temperatures will remain colder than average for this time of year, according to forecasters.

Wrong body delivered to funeral of Israeli woman killed in Chile accident

The family of Dina Porat, an Israeli woman killed in a boating accident in Chile last week, finds the wrong body in her casket today, minutes ahead of her funeral in Rishpon.

Instead of Porat’s body, the family was sent the body of another victim in the accident, Glila Biton, whose funeral is slated for the coming days.

The Porat funeral has been delayed until her casket arrives from Chile in the next day or two, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Israel says Chilean officials switched bodies of women killed in accident

The Israeli Foreign Ministry blames Chilean officials for the apparent switching of the bodies of two Israeli women killed in a boating accident in Chile last week.

In a statement, the ministry says Israel’s consul in southern Chile accompanied the families of the victims to the funeral home in Punta Arenas, where the bodies were identified by family members and sent to the capital Santiago for shipment to Israel.

It was in Santiago, in the hands of Chilean officials responsible for handling the shipment of the bodies to Israel, that the identity documents of the women were apparently switched, the ministry says, sending the body of Glila Biton to the funeral of Dina Porat held today in the northern Tel Aviv suburb town of Rishpon. Porat’s funeral was delayed after the discovery of Biton’s body in the casket. Biton’s funeral is slated to take place in the coming days.

Israel’s embassy in Chile has launched a probe of the error with Chilean authorities.

Explosive device launched from Gaza detonates inside southern Israeli community

An explosive device attached to a cluster of balloons that was launched from the Gaza Strip detonates inside a community in the southern Sha’ar Hanegev region, the local government says.

“The device attached to the cluster of balloons exploded in an open area. There were no injuries or damage to property,” a Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson says in a statement.

— Judah Ari Gross

UN report on firms linked to West Bank settlements stalls anew

GENEVA — The UN human rights chief says her office will not publish as expected this month a highly controversial report about companies doing business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The move by High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet follows a campaign by the United States and others to squelch publication of what Israel called a “blacklist” that could drive away companies.

UN officials make public today a letter she sent citing the “complexity” of the task mandated by the Human Rights Council in 2016.

The report has been delayed before. It was expected to be published during the council’s session that ends March 22.

Last year, the rights office said 206 companies, mostly Israeli and American, were facing a review of business practices involving Israeli settlements, which are viewed as illegal by much of the world.

— AP

Two Palestinians said wounded by IDF fire in violent Gaza border protest

Two Palestinians are wounded by Israeli fire during a riot along the Gaza border fence, east of the Bureij refugee camp, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says.

Each night, so-called “confusion units” have held violent demonstrations along the border, setting off explosives, burning tires and throwing rocks at Israeli troops on the other side of the security fence.

— Judah Ari Gross

UK counterterrorism police examine 3 explosive devices in London

LONDON — Britain’s counterterrorism police are investigating after three padded mailing bags with what appears to be small explosive devices inside were found in London.

Police say smaller bags inside the mailers enclosed the devices that “appear capable of igniting an initially small fire when opened.”

Officials say the Met Police Counter Terrorism Command “is treating the incidents as a linked series.”

One mailer was found near Heathrow Airport. A building was evacuated as a precaution after the package was opened and part of it burned.

Officials say the building is not at the airport and flights were not affected. There are no injuries.

Another mailer has turned up near City Airport, and the third in the mail room at Waterloo Station. The package at the rail station was not opened.

— AP

Far-right leader backtracks on apparent willingness to join Gantz government

Union of Right Wing Parties chairman Rafi Peretz rules out joining a coalition led by the Blue and White party.

“The Blue and White party is leftist. Period. And that is the why we will never be able to join a government headed by it,” he tweets.

Peretz’s post also includes a video of the URWP leader describing the pain endured by Israelis such as himself during the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, drawing a parallel to the policies that he suggests Benny Gantz will work to carry out as prime minister.

Last week, Peretz spoke more positively of the former IDF chief of staff amid a stream of assaults from other right-wing politicians. “I wouldn’t dream of ruling him out,” he told Army Radio. “You can’t call a chief of staff ‘dangerous.’ He was my commander and he’s my friend. Politics don’t determine everything,” he said then.

— Jacob Magid

Haredi deputy mayor of Jerusalem boycotts event at Conservative venue

The deputy mayor of Jerusalem refuses to attend a real estate conference because it is held in a facility owned by the Conservative movement.

Eliezer Rauchberger, who represents the Haredi Degel Hatorah party and holds the building and planning portfolio on the capital’s city council, had committed to being a keynote speaker Monday at the national convention of the Real Estate Appraisers Association in Israel. But he pulled out the day of the conference after realizing that it would be held at the Agron Guesthouse in downtown Jerusalem, Haaretz reports. The guesthouse hosts delegations and youth groups affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Rauchberger tells Haaretz in an email that he withdrew from the event because “Reform and Conservative [Jews] champion the destruction of Judaism. The people of Israel and residents of Jerusalem, who I have the honor to serve, are not connected to these movements and do not want them to gain a foothold in the city or within the Jewish people. I do not have and will not have any connection to these heretical movements.”

He says he plans to boycott all events in the city connected in any way with the non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

— JTA

Escape room in Greece drops ‘Schindler’s List’ name

An escape room in Greece that had raised the hackles of the Jewish community drops the name Schindler’s List.

The Great Escape company has changed the name to Secret Agent, the German news website Deutsche Welle reports. One of the company’s eight games and among the most popular, Schindler’s List has been operating for about two years in Thessaloniki.

The game requires participants to draw up a list of survivors who will be spared a horrible death by enemy forces, drawing on the plot of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Holocaust film “Schindler’s List,” which tells the story of the real-life Oskar Schindler, a Nazi industrialist who decided in the midst of the Holocaust to rescue as many Jews as he could by employing them in his factories and bribing Nazi officials to ensure they avoid being shipped to death camps.

Schindler’s efforts, which helped some 1,200 Jews survive the genocide, drove him to destitution. He is the only member of the Nazi party recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as a “Righteous Among the Nations.”

“Your mission is to find Schindler’s list and deliver it to the right hands,” the game’s former description read. “Will you manage to escape from the German army and save the lives of hundreds of innocent people?”

The new description makes no explicit reference to Jews or the Holocaust, according to Deutsche Welle.

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece has condemned the game.

Escape rooms have become hugely popular throughout Greece.

Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, was one of the largest Jewish communities in the world before it was almost completely decimated by the Nazis in 1943.

— JTA

Police said set to recommend graft charges against Likud MK Bitan

Police are set to recommend that Likud MK David Bitan, a former Knesset coalition chairman, be indicted on multiple charges of bribery, fraud and money laundering.

The police recommendation will be handed to prosecutors before election day on April 9, Channel 12 news reports.

The charges will cover multiple separate incidents of alleged graft from Bitan’s period as a prominent member of the Rishon Lezion city council, and allegedly involve local real estate developers paying for zoning and other regulatory decisions.

Despite graft suspicions, Netanyahu preferred candidate for PM – poll

Benjamin Netanyahu remains the preferred candidate for prime minister several days after the announcement Thursday of impending graft indictments against him, pending a hearing.

A Channel 12 news poll finds that 40 percent of respondents say Netanyahu is the candidate they “prefer as prime minister.” His leading opponent, Blue and White chair Benny Gantz, is preferred by 34% of respondents.

The poll also finds that Blue and White beats Likud in the Knesset, winning 36 seats in the 120-seat parliament next to Likud’s 30.

Labor comes third at 9 seats, followed by the Arab alliance of Hadash-Ta’al (8 seats), then Haredi parties United Torah Judaism (7) and Shas (6), then the far-right alliance of Jewish Home, National Union and the extremist Otzma Yehudit (6). The smallest parties, who all skirt the 3.25% electoral threshold, are Kulanu (5), the New Right (5), Meretz (4) and Ra’am-Balad (4).

One party in the current Knesset comes in under the threshold — Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, at 2.7% of the vote; followed by Gesher party of former Yisrael Beytenu MK Orly Levy-Abekassis at 2.2%; then Zehut at 2% and former Shas chairman Eli Yishai’s Yahad party at 1.5%.

Asked point-blank who they expect to actually form the next government, Netanyahu’s presumed advantage becomes clear: 55% of respondents say they expect Netanyahu, just 23% say Gantz.

$6.3m. raised for Pittsburgh synagogue massacre families, survivors

A $6.3 million fund established after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre will primarily be split among the families of the dead and survivors of the worst attack on Jews in US history, organizers announce. It will also go to help police officers who were wounded in the attempt to stop the shooting.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up the Victims of Terror Fund after the October 27 attack at Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 and wounded seven. The fund took in more than 8,500 donations from 48 states and at least eight countries.

The donations are “expressions of love, generosity, compassion and a desire to help in the healing process,” the independent committee overseeing the fund writes in its report Tuesday. The committee acknowledges that “no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one’s life” or “completely heal our hearts or our communities.”

The fund stopped accepting donations February 27.

An anti-Semitic truck driver named Robert Bowers has been charged in the attack. Authorities have said Bowers expressed hatred of Jews as he opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons. Bowers pleaded not guilty to federal hate crimes and dozens of other counts, but his lawyer has signaled he might be open to a plea deal.

Federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh have previously indicated their intention to seek the death penalty.

— AP

Temple Mount Islamic council vows to keep Gate of Mercy site open

The Islamic authority that oversees Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem rejects a court order to close a prayer hall near the Gate of Mercy area of the Temple Mount, which has ignited tension between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police in recent weeks.

Sheikh Abdelazeem Salhab, chairman of the Waqf Council appointed by neighboring Jordan, says the structure would “remain open for Muslims to pray,” despite Israel’s ultimatum to close the site by next Monday.

Salhab demands that Israel permit the Waqf to renovate the building and revoke orders banning dozens of Waqf officials, guards and worshipers from the sacred compound.

Israel sealed off the structure in 2003, claiming it was home to a group with ties to terror groups. The Waqf has recently challenged the closure, convening and staging prayer-protests in the area.

— Agencies

‘F*** Jews,’ white Alabama teens say in video that slurs blacks, too

A video showing white high school students in Alabama using racist slurs about blacks and Jews and talking about the Holocaust is posted on social media.

The video shared on Facebook and Twitter shows the students drinking and talking in a venue not on school property.

“F*** n*****s, f*** Jews,” one student says.

“Jews are fine because they’re white,” another says. “We just need the n*****s gone.”

They also talk about putting blacks in concentration camps and waiting until they die off. Another student says: “If the Holocaust never happened, Jews would be running the world right now.”

The teens attend high schools in Hoover, near Birmingham.

“We are exceptionally sad and disappointed that this would either be the attitude of some of our young people or whatever would prompt them to have such conversations,” Hoover Superintendent of Schools Kathy Murphy tells AL.com.

The principals where the teens attend school are discussing what should be done about the students, according to the report. Murphy says any disciplinary action would take into account that the event happened off school property.

— JTA

Report: After leaving Communications Ministry, PM still intervened in its work

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued intervening in the Communications Ministry’s work even after he was forced to give up the portfolio and appoint Druze MK Ayoub Kara as communications minister in 2017, Channel 13 reports.

After he left the post of communications minister, Netanyahu reportedly tried to benefit right-wing television network Channel 20 by purportedly pressuring Kara to close the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, a TV regulator, for trying to prevent the network from launching news broadcasts.

The premier was forced to give up his position as communications minister when it was revealed police were investigating suspicions of corruption surrounding a business merger between telecom giant Bezeq and satellite firm Yes, in what later ballooned into the Case 4000 graft investigation. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last week announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for bribery in the case, pending a hearing.

The Likud party says Tuesday the report is “nonsense” and “another attempt to create a false headline about nothing.”

Kara’s office and the Communications Ministry deny the claims in the Channel 13 report, saying the bill to close the TV regulator was pushed by the Finance Ministry and had no connection to them.

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Balad party sues journalist for calling it a ‘terror group’

The Balad political party is suing prominent political analyst Amit Segal for libel after he called the Palestinian-nationalist party a “terror group” masquerading as a political party.

The suit asking for NIS 280,000 ($77,000) in damages is filed at the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court today.

Balad insists it opposes targeting civilians with violence, but its lawmakers have expressed support for Islamist terror groups like Hamas and justified or supported Palestinian violence against Israelis.