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Hezbollah says not expecting war, but prepared for ‘foolish’ Israeli moves

Deputy head of Lebanon-based terrorist group says its troops ‘ready to confront the Israeli aggression if it happens’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Hezbollah deputy secretary general Naim Qassem (photo credit: AP/Grace Kassab)
Hezbollah deputy secretary general Naim Qassem (photo credit: AP/Grace Kassab)

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

In urgent search for cash, UN chief says agency prevents radicalization in Gaza

A US-induced half-billion-dollar funding shortfall for the UN relief agency for Palestinians risks cutting critical services that could “push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions,” the UN chief warns.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tells an emergency funding conference in Rome that investment in UN programs addresses the despair and other factors “that lead to radicalization” among young Palestinians.

Guterres tells the conference, which was sponsored by Jordan, Egypt and Sweden, that cutting sanitation, health care and medical services in already poverty-wracked and conflict-ridden areas “would have severe impacts — a cascade of problems that could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions.”

— with AP

Egypt’s president says he’s ready to personally join fight against jihadists

With less than two weeks before elections, Egypt’s president says he is prepared to personally join the army and police battling Islamic militants in Sinai, vowing he and his security forces would prosecute the fight until the end.

“I swear by God that I am ready to don combat fatigues and fight side by side” with the security forces, said Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a general-turned-president. “We either live together, or die together.”

The outcome of the March 26-28 election is a foregone conclusion, with Sissi running virtually unopposed. His only challenger is a little-known politician who supports him.

With a landslide win beyond doubt, he and his supporters are urging voters to come out and cast their ballots since a high turnout will accord the vote legitimacy.

— AP

German Muslims lament lack of solidarity after mosque attacks

Muslim groups in Germany are asking for greater solidarity from officials and the general public over a series of attacks against mosques.

Several recent attacks on Turkish-backed mosques in Germany have been blamed on Kurdish groups angered by Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria.

However, far-right extremists are suspected in many other attacks, including a threatening letter containing white powder that prompted the evacuation of the Central Council of Muslims’ offices Wednesday.

Its chairman, Aiman Mazyek, tells reporters in Berlin that “if mosques in our country burn, then our country burns.”

Zekeriya Altug, spokesman for the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany, says “we miss clear sympathy from the public and politicians.”

He urged the government to appoint a commissioner to tackle anti-Muslim sentiment like it has for anti-Semitism.

— AP

Egyptian FM says UNRWA programs preventing radicalization, terrorism

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry says the services provided by the UN relief agency for Palestinians is vital in protecting their dignity and helps prevent radicalization.

Shoukry tells reporters the UN agency had already undertaken reform measures to streamline and rationalize its activities, but said “there is a limit to its ability to do so” given the enormous sustained needs faced by 5 million people.

“It is vital and it is necessary to address these very basic services, but also to provide dignity for multitudes of Palestinians and to (protect) many of them from the potential threats of radicalization and terrorism,” he tells reporters at an emergency funding conference in Rome.

— with AP

If Iran gets nuclear bomb, Saudi Arabia will follow suit, crown prince says

Likening Iran’s leader to Hitler, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince warns in a US television interview that if Tehran gets a nuclear weapon, his country will follow suit.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says in an excerpt of the interview that aired on “CBS This Morning.”

— AFP

Saudi crown prince likens Iran leader to Hitler

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tells an American news show that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei is behaving like Adolf Hitler during the rise of Nazi Germany.

“He wants to expand. He wants to create his own project in the Middle East very much like Hitler who wanted to expand at the time,” bin Salman tells “CBS This Morning.”

“Many countries around the world and in Europe did not realize how dangerous Hitler was until what happened, happened. I don’t want to see the same events happening in the Middle East,” he says.

More than 12,000 Syrians flee opposition-held eastern Ghouta

More than 12,000 people poured out of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, a monitor says, calling it the “largest displacement” since government troops launched their assault on the rebel enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says residents were fleeing battlefront towns in a southern pocket of Eastern Ghouta after regime forces opened up a corridor into loyalist territory.

The mass exit comes as Syrians marked seven years since the popular uprising that sparked their country’s vicious civil war — and hours after Syrian government forces blanketed the town with airstrikes and rocket fire.

— Agencies

UK, US, France, Germany condemn spy attack in rare joint statement

The leaders of the United States, France, Germany and Britain say they are united in blaming Russia for a nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal.

In a rare joint statement, US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May say “there is no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility in the March 4 attack in England.

They say Russia’s failure to respond to Britain’s “legitimate request” for an explanation “further underlines its responsibility.”

The leaders say the use of a chemical weapon is “an assault on UK sovereignty” and “a breach of international law.”

Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomats and suspended high-level contacts with Moscow over the incident.

Russia is expected to take retaliatory measures soon.

— AP

Court extends remand for deputy Jerusalem mayor

The Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court extends the remand for Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Meir Turgeman for another 5 days.

Turgeman (Likud) was arrested earlier this week along with five others on allegations of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, abuse of power and various tax offenses.

Officials say Turgeman, who serves as chairman of the capital’s Planning and Building Committee, is suspected of accepting money in exchange for illegally advancing various interests.

Syria army captures key Ghouta town as rebels withdraw

Syria’s army captures the key town of Hammuriyeh in a southern pocket of Eastern Ghouta, a monitor says, after rebels pulled back and thousands of residents fled.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Hammuriyeh fell to regime forces after Islamist rebels from Faylaq al-Rahman withdrew.

— AFP

Germany indicts Syrian migrant over IS-inspired bomb plot

German prosecutors have indicted a 20-year-old Syrian migrant for plotting a bombing in which they say he hoped to kill at least 200 people.

Federal prosecutors say the suspect, identified only as Yamen A. in line with German privacy rules, was charged with preparing a serious act of violence.

They say he wanted to emulate attacks by the Islamic State group, and decided by last summer to set off a bomb in a crowd. It’s unclear where and when the attack was to take place. He was arrested in October.

Authorities say he had procured chemicals used to make the explosive TATP and other bomb-making materials usually used to build a remote-controlled bomb. They have said they see no evidence he was part of a terror group.

— AP

Colombia blocks IS-linked plot to kill US diplomats

Police in Colombia have arrested a Cuban man suspected of plotting to kill American diplomats in the name of the Islamic State.

Police in Spain say they had been monitoring the online activities of the suspect, Raul Gutierrez, and that over a period of several weeks he showed signs of gradual indoctrination in radical Islam. In late February he allegedly said he had obtained an arsenal of explosives that he planned to detonate at a popular dining area in Bogota frequented by US diplomats.

He was arrested Monday in the western city of Pereiera as a result of the operation between Spanish authorities, the FBI and Colombian police.

Gutierrez pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance yesterday.

The US Embassy in Colombia did not immediately comment.

— AP

Netanyahu hails Austrian leader’s ‘powerful’ Holocaust initiatives

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails the “powerful” speech made by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who said yesterday that his country’s responsibility toward Israel and the Jewish people in the wake of the Holocaust was still ongoing.

“I welcome the powerful speech of Chancellor Kurz and his determination to combat anti-Semitism,” Netanyahu says in a statement. “We attach great importance to his intention to advance a series of government decisions regarding Holocaust education and commemoration.”

“Thank you, Sebastian, for your leadership,” the prime minister says.

At an event marking the 80th anniversary of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany, Kurz said the legacy of the Holocaust continues to “shame and afflict” the country, and stressed the importance of memorializing the genocide of European Jewry.

But, Kurz said, Austria’s responsibility did not end with Holocaust commemoration. He said the country had a “special responsibility to the state of Israel and the secuity needs of the Jewish people there.”

“For only if Jews can live without restriction in peace and security can a ‘never forget’ become a ‘never again.'”

Kurz is seeking cabinet approval for a proposal to erect a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in the center of Vienna.

US imposes sanctions on Russians for election meddling

The Trump administration imposes sanctions on 19 Russians for alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, including 13 indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia-related investigation.

Also targeted were five Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, which is accused of orchestrating a mass online disinformation campaign to affect the election that Republican Donald Trump won over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The Treasury Department announces the sanctions amid withering criticism of Trump and his administration for failing to use the congressionally mandated authority to punish Russia for the election interference. Trump himself has been skeptical of the allegations.

The sanctions are the first use of the powers that Congress passed last year in retaliation for Moscow’s meddling. The targets include officials working for the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. Thursday’s action freezes any assets the individuals and entities may have in the United States, and bar Americans from doing business with them.

— AP

France issues arrest warrant for Saudi crown prince’s sister

France has issued an arrest warrant for the sister of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on suspicion of ordering her bodyguard to beat up a worker at her Paris apartment, sources close to the case tell AFP.

The mandate against the princess, named in the warrant under the French spelling Hussat ben Salmane, was issued in late December, a source says, confirming a report by Le Point magazine.

— AFP

MK Oren Hazan lightly injured in car accident

Likud MK Oren Hazan was lightly injured in a car accident on Route 6 this afternoon.

The Magen David Adom paramedic service says in a statement that Hazan was taken to the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center for treatment of injuries he sustained to his leg and back.

MDA says the Likud MK is fully conscious. He later drove himself to the Tel Hashomer Hospital for further treatment.

The statement says the lawmaker’s car appears to have been rear-ended by another vehicle.

US accuses Russia of ongoing operation to hack energy grid

The Trump administration is accusing Russia of a concerted, ongoing operation to hack and spy on the US energy grid and other critical infrastructure.

US national security officials say the FBI, the Homeland Security Department, and American intelligence agencies determined that Russian intelligence and others were behind the attacks on the energy sector.

The officials say the Russians deliberately chose US energy industry targets, obtaining access to computer systems and then conducting “network reconnaissance” of industrial control systems that run American factories and the electricity grid.

US government has helped energy businesses kick out the Russians from all systems currently known to have been penetrated, according to the officials.

Earlier today, the US separately imposed sanctions on Russian officials for alleged high-tech interference in the 2016 American presidential election.

The accusations and accompanying sanctions are some of the strongest actions to date by the administration to punish Russia for hacking and other efforts to sow discord in the American democracy.

— with AP

Gal Gadot is Reebok’s newest celebrity brand ambassador

Israeli Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot is the latest Hollywood celebrity to become a global brand ambassador for athletic apparel company Reebok.

Gadot joins singer Ariana Grande, fashion designer Victoria Beckham, and supermodel Gigi Hadid as the latest celebrity to front a campaign for the company.

In a statement, Reebok’s general manager of the performance business unit, Todd Krinsky, says the company wanted to work with women who “instill confidence in all generations to take risks and to keep pushing, all while making a positive difference in the world.

He says Gadot’s “relentless spirit and natural leadership have already captivated and inspired millions, and we believe that this is just the starting point.”

In a tweet, Gadot says she is “pumped” to work with the company, and that “together, we’re going to find the fun in fitness, and the strength in sports!”

According to Hadashot news, the Israeli actress is earning $10 million for the partnership.

David S. Wyman, Holocaust scholar, dead at 89

David S. Wyman, the Holocaust scholar whose “The Abandonment of the Jews” was a provocative, best-selling critique of everyone from religious leaders to President Franklin Roosevelt, has died.

The author’s Wyman Institute announced that Wyman died Wednesday at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts, after a lengthy illness. He was 89.

The grandson of Protestant ministers, Wyman was in graduate school when he began a long-term quest to learn what was done on behalf of the Jews rounded up and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. He wrote several books, lectured often, and founded a Holocaust institute.

— AP

High court temporarily suspends mass deportation of African migrants

The High Court of Justice temporarily suspends a government plan to deport tens of thousands of African migrants back to the continent against their will.

The emergency injunction is issued in response to a petition signed by 120 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.

The court said in its decision the state was given until March 26 to provide further information and the suspension would remain in place until then.

In January, Netanyahu’s government unveiled a plan to remove the African migrants, giving them a choice between leaving voluntarily or facing indefinite imprisonment with eventual forced expulsion.

Today’s ruling will not apply to those who have already volunteered to leave Israel for an unnamed African country.

Doctors to examine US man sought by Poland in Nazi case

American authorities are moving ahead with Poland’s request to extradite a 99-year-old Minnesota man to be tried on allegations he was involved in a World War II massacre of civilians, Polish prosecutors say.

Polish authorities issued an arrest warrant last year after opening a case following a series of 2013 reports in which The Associated Press identified the man as Ukrainian-born Michael Karkoc, an ex-commander in an SS-led Nazi unit that burned Polish villages and killed civilians during the war.

Karkoc’s family denies that he was involved in any war crimes.

Last July, Poland asked US authorities to hand over Karkoc, who lives in Minneapolis, so he could face a court trial.

National Remembrance Institute prosecutor Robert Janicki says that in response to Poland’s extradition request, American authorities have now chosen three medical experts to determine whether Karkoc can “consciously take part in a court trial and travel by plane.” The timing of the examination was not immediately known.

It was the first sign of progress made on the extradition request.

— AP

Hezbollah not expecting war with Israel, but prepared for ‘foolish’ Israeli moves

Hezbollah’s deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem says the Lebanon-based terrorist group is not seeking another round of hostilities with Israel, but is prepared for war if the IDF makes a “foolish” advance.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Qassem says Hezbollah “is ready to confront the aggression if it happens, if Israel decides to carry out any foolish action.”

“We have declared repeatedly and frequently that we, as the resistance, work to have permanent readiness and we are ready to confront the Israeli aggression if it happens, and therefore we are ready to defend ourself by all available means,” he says. “But it does not appear that the circumstances are for an Israeli decision for war.”

“We are working to fortify our front, and to be ready,” he adds.

Qassem also says during the interview that Hezbollah was prepared to keep its forces in Syria for as long as necessary.

Israel joins West in condemning nerve agent attack on Russian ex-spy

Israel joins Western powers in condemning the poisoning of a Russian former double agent in England earlier this month, an incident that sparked soaring diplomatic tensions between London and Moscow.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry says it “strongly condemns the event in Great Britain,” referring to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on March 4 with a Soviet-designed chemical agent. Both are in critical condition at a local hospital.

Unlike the UK, the US, France, and Germany, Israel did not blame Russia for attempting to kill Skripal.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats, severed high-level contacts with Moscow, and vowed both open and covert actions in response to the attack.

Ethiopian immigration to Israel on hold after budget passes

An activist group says the reunification of hundreds of families split between Israel and Ethiopia is on hold after Israel failed to set aside funding for the Ethiopians’ immigration in next year’s budget.

Alisa Bodner, a spokeswoman for the Struggle for Ethiopian Aliyah, calls on Israel to resolve the issue without further delay.

Nearly 8,000 Ethiopians want Israel to approve their immigration, allowing them to join their families in Israel. Although many are practicing Jews, Israel doesn’t consider them Jewish, meaning their immigration requires special approval.

The families see the issue as part of an inconsistent and discriminatory immigration policy.

Earlier today, the Knesset approved a 2019 budget with no allocation for the immigration. Bodner says the issue is expected to come up in a government committee at an unknown date.

— AP

Catholic, Jewish leaders in Poland seek to reduce tensions

Catholic and Jewish leaders in Poland are taking steps to try to rebuild dialogue and fight prejudice in their communities after a Polish-Israeli dispute sparked expressions of mutual hostility.

The Polish Bishops’ Conference reacted to an eruption of anti-Jewish rhetoric in Poland by describing anti-Semitism in a statement Wednesday as being “contradictory to the principles of Christian love of one’s neighbor.”

A group of rabbis in Poland replied this afternoon to the bishops, saying they “deeply appreciate” their condemnation of anti-Semitism. They also vowed to “continue to speak out against analogous attitudes among Jews,” referring to expressions of anti-Polish sentiment voiced by some Israelis and American Jews recently.

Bad feelings erupted in late January over a new Polish law that criminalizes blaming Poland for Nazi Germany’s Holocaust crimes.

— AP

Deri vows to continue mass deportations of Africans despite injunction

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri says the High Court’s temporary injunction barring the government from deporting tens of thousands of African migrants will not prevent Israel from carrying out the controversial plan.

“Residents of south Tel Aviv, we will counter to the High Court of Justice’s injunction in response to these provocative decisions, and the plan to to return the infiltrators will continue,” Deri posts on Twitter.

“We won’t succumb to lying campaigns,” Deri says. “We will win in the end, because truth and justice will prevail.

Kahlon says Netanyahu cannot stay in office if indicted

Finance Minister and Kulanu party chairman Moshe Kahlon says that Netanyahu cannot continue serving as prime minister if he is indicted on corruption-related charges.

“There is one person and there is one law, a law stating that the attorney general decides whether an indictment will be filed,” Kalhon says in an interview with Hadashot news. “The prime minister will not be able to continue serving as prime minister under an indictment.

“This was my position three months ago, and it is still my answer in the studio today,” he tells the TV news station.

US to exit Iran deal by May, Netanyahu tells cabinet — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told members of his cabinet this week that US President Donald Trump will likely walk away from the Iran nuclear deal this May, Channel 10 news reports.

Netanyahu made the remarks during the cabinet meeting on Sunday when he relayed the details of his meeting with Trump in Washington a week earlier.

According to the report, Netanyahu said his conversation with Trump about the 2015 nuclear deal was attended by Vice President Mike Pence, then-Secretary of State Rex Tilerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

“I believe Trump is very close to canceling the nuclear agreement,” Netanyahu reportedly told his ministers. “The president spoke in the presence of his staff and senior government officials when he told me that if there is no significant change he’ll pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Pedestrian bridge collapses over Miami highway

A newly installed pedestrian bridge collapses over a six-lane highway in Miami on a college campus, sparking a frantic rescue operation, police and university officials say.

The Miami Herald reports that an unknown number of people and cars were trapped underneath the collapsed bridge, which connected Florida International University to a student housing area.

Local station NBC 6 is reporting that several people have been killed in the accident.

— AFP

2 Israelis sentenced in Germany for art forgery scheme

A German court convicts a former businessman and an art gallery owner of fraud and falsifying documents for selling fake paintings attributed to Russian avant-garde artists including Vasily Kandinsky.

The dpa news agency reports the two men, aged 45 and 72, received jail terms of two years and eight months, and three years respectively in Wiesbaden start court. Their names weren’t reported.

The two were originally charged with selling 19 forgeries attributed to artists like Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Natalia Goncharova, but the court ruled they could only prove fraud without a doubt in six cases. The men must also repay 1 million euros ($1.25 million) in profits.

German police said when the men were arrested in 2013 that tips from Israel had prompted them to open the investigation.

Various reports from their arrest in 2013 identify the suspected forgers as Israeli. Germany’s Der Speigel at the time identified the pair as Itzhak Z. and Moez Ben H. in keeping with the country’s privacy laws.

Iran slams ‘simple-minded’ Saudi crown prince after Hitler jab

Iran lashes out at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, calling him a “simple-mind” after the powerful young royal likened Iran’s supreme leader to Adolf Hitler.

“These words are worthless … because they come from a simple mind full of illusions who speaks only bitterness and lies,” says Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi.

— AFP

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France issues arrest warrant for Saudi crown prince’s sister

France has issued an arrest warrant for the sister of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on suspicion of ordering her bodyguard to beat up a worker at her Paris apartment, sources close to the case tell AFP.

The mandate against the princess, named in the warrant under the French spelling Hussat ben Salmane, was issued in late December, a source says, confirming a report by Le Point magazine.

— AFP