Gaza protesters call for Abbas resignation at rally against PA leader
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Israel says plot to smuggle guns across Jordan border thwarted

Group of 4 Palestinians from Nablus arrested for allegedly attempting to smuggle 37 handguns into Israel

The Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal at the Wadi Araba crossing between Israel and Jordan. (CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia, NYC2TLV)
The Yitzhak Rabin Border Terminal at the Wadi Araba crossing between Israel and Jordan. (CC BY 2.5, Wikipedia, NYC2TLV)

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

Gaza protesters call for Abbas resignation at rally against PA leader

Hundreds of Palestinians are rallying in Gaza City demanding that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas step down.

Photos and videos of Saraya Square shows crowds this afternoon chanting “Go, go, Abbas, that’s the demand of the people.”

The rally is organized by a movement called the Free Gaza Movement, whose members are circulating anti-Abbas content on social media platforms.

Over the past year, Abbas has cut budgets allocated to Gaza to pressure Hamas to return control of the Strip to the PA. While he has reinstated some of the funds he originally froze, Gaza’s Hamas rulers continue to criticize him for not restoring all of the funds.

Mine left by Islamic State kills 20 civilians in Syria

More than 20 civilians were killed earlier today in central Syria when a landmine left behind by jihadists exploded under a van, the state news agency SANA says.

The ordnance left behind by the Islamic State group in the town of Salamiyeh killed farmworkers who were heading to a region in the Hama province to pick truffles, SANA said, citing local police.

It was the second such incident since February 8 when a landmine that had been planted by IS in rural Hama exploded killing seven civilians, SANA says.

IS had a presence in Hama’s countryside before the Syrian army drove the jihadists from the area in 2017.

— AFP

EU denounces Maduro regime’s use of ‘armed groups’ to block Venezuela aid

The European Union condemns Caracas for its use of violence and armed regime supporters to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid into Venezuela.

“We reject the use of irregular armed groups to intimidate civilians and lawmakers who have mobilized to distribute aid,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says in a statement in the name of the bloc’s 28 members.

— AFP

2 Palestinian women arrested at checkpoint north of Jerusalem

Israeli security forces arrest two Palestinian women at a checkpoint outside Ramallah in the West Bank, according to a police statement.

A woman from Nablus aroused suspicion of guards at the Qalandia checkpoint when she approached the crossing in the vehicle lane, and refused to stop when asked, the statement says. Security forces arrest her after firing in the air.

The knife that police say was found on a Palestinian woman at the Qalandia checkpoint on February 24, 2019. (Israel Police)

Earlier in the day, police say a Palestinian woman from the Ramallah area was arrested at the Qalandia crossing after Israeli security forces found a knife in her belongings.

Both women are taken for questioning by the border police.

Iran says bid by ‘enemies’ to sabotage missiles foiled

The Revolutionary Guards accuses “enemies” of Iran of trying to sabotage the country’s missiles so that they would “explode mid-air” but says the bid was foiled.

“They tried as best as they could to sabotage a small part which we import so that our missiles would not reach their target and explode mid-air,” Fars news agency reports, quoting the Guards’ aerospace commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

“But they couldn’t do a damn thing because we had seen this coming from the start and had reinforced this sector,” he adds, accusing Iran’s “enemies” of sabotage without naming any specific country.

Earlier this month the New York Times reported that the administration of US President Donald Trump was pushing a secret program aimed at sabotaging Iranian rockets and missiles.

It said Washington was trying to “slip faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains” as part of a campaign to undercut Tehran’s military.

Iran reined in most of its nuclear program under a landmark 2015 deal with major powers in return for sanctions relief, but has continued to develop its ballistic missile technology.

— AFP

Israeli lunar spacecraft successfully completes first maneuver

Israel’s first lunar-bound spacecraft successfully completes its first maneuver after its first orbit around the earth, according to the team behind the privately funded Beresheet project.

According to a joint statement from IAI and SpaceIL, the 30-second maneuver, made 69,400 kilometers from earth, enabled the spacecraft to edge closer to the moon, where it will eventually be captured in lunar orbit.

The maneuver “will increase the spacecraft’s closest point of approach to Earth to a distance of 600 kilometers,” the statement sayd.

“This is the first time Beresheet’s main engine was activated – the maneuver was completed successfully!” it adds.

The next maneuver is scheduled for tomorrow night.

Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, lifted from Cape Canaveral in Florida early Friday morning atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the private US-based SpaceX company of entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The Israeli craft was placed in Earth orbit, from where it will use its own engine to undertake a seven-week trip to reach the Moon and touch down on April 11 in a large plain.

If successful, Beresheet will make history twice: as the first private-sector landing on the Moon, and the first from the Jewish state.

AIPAC rebuked PM’s far-right merger for damaging bipartisan ties — official

AIPAC’s statement chiding the extremist Otzma Yehudit party can be seen as a rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for causing damage to bipartisan support for Israel, a former Jerusalem-based official of the pro-Israel lobby says.

“This has been growing for a long time, because Netanyahu over the past years has really been detrimental to AIPAC’s entire concept of bipartisan politics in the United States. He has been hurting that for a long time,” David Kreizelman, a former AIPAC foreign policy associate, tells The Times of Israel.

“This has created a situation where there’s a direct conflict with anything the community has to say about anti-Semitism and racism in Israel,” Kreizelman says. “He sort of overstepped the line now. It’s a serious problem.”

AIPAC “very rarely” comments on Israeli politics, Kreizelman adds. That’s why the group’s tweet on Saturday — which called Otzma a “racist and reprehensible party” though it did not mention Netanyahu, who has been active in promoting a deal that could help the party enter the Knesset — was such a big deal.

“It’s pretty major. It’s a very strong statement,” he says.

— Raphael Ahren

IDF soldier accused of beating Palestinian detainees strikes plea deal

Military prosecutors reach a plea deal with one of the soldiers accused of beating two Palestinian prisoners, under which the serviceman would plead guilty to aggravated abuse and serve six-and-a-half months in prison while avoiding a more serious charge of aggravated assault, the army says.

The soldier and four others from the religious Netzah Yehuda Battalion of the Kfir Brigade were arrested and charged earlier this year and charged with abusing two Palestinian suspects who were believed to have assisted a terrorist who killed two of their comrades the month before.

According to the indictment, the soldiers viciously beat the two prisoners — a father and son, who have since been charged with abetting the terrorist — and filmed their actions with a smartphone. One of the prisoners sustained such serious injuries that he was hospitalized and could not be interrogated by Israeli security forces for several days.

As part of the plea deal, the serviceman would also be demoted in rank to private and be placed on probation.

The military says it is working to convince the other four soldiers to also accept plea deals instead of facing a full criminal trial.

— Judah Ari Gross

Passengers safe after hijack attempt on Dubai-bound plane in Bangladesh

All passengers on board a Dubai-bound Bangladesh Biman plane are safe after Bangladeshi security forces foiled a hijack attempt by a lone suspect on Sunday, a senior air force official says.

“We have successfully rescued everyone,” said Air Vice Marshall Mofid, who goes by one name, after security forces stormed the plane and arrested a 25-year-old man for attempting to hijack flight BG147 which had taken off from the capital Dhaka.

The plane landed safely at Chittagong airport in southeastern Bangladesh, where the passengers were evacuated.

Mofid tells reporters that the hijacker claimed he had a pistol, but he had since been taken into custody and is being questioned.

— AFP

US Jewish leader: Netanyahu far-right merger creates ‘very disturbing’ image of Israel

A prominent Jewish-American leader says that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with an far-right political party has raised significant concerns among US Jews.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, says the political alliance has created a “very disturbing” image that Israel’s enemies could exploit.

Netanyahu last week welcomed a merger that folded the Otzma Yehudit party into the larger Jewish Home party for April elections. As part of their deal, Netanyahu gave the merged party a seat on his Likud Party’s list of candidates and guaranteed them two Cabinet positions if he wins.

Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.

— with AP

Pittsburgh mayor pays tribute to synagogue shooting victims in Jerusalem

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto visits a memorial in Jerusalem commemorating the victims of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last year.

Peduto, who is in Israel for a conference of US mayors, plants an olive tree to memorialize the 11 Jewish worshipers gunned down by a white supremacist in his city on October 27.

He praises Pittsburgh’s response to the massacre, saying community and businesses leaders “leaders gathered as one and said ‘an attack against one is an attack against us all.’”

Israel-Hamas prisoner swap talks collapse due to demands by Gaza — report

Reported negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas have failed, a source from the Gaza ruling group tells The Independent’s Arabic-language news site.

The unnamed official says the talks broke down due after Hamas increased its demands to include the release of 1,500 security prisoners held by Israel. The report says that Israel considers at least 500 of them to have “blood on their hands,” meaning they are serving long sentences for their direct involvement in carrying out attacks against Israelis.

The 1,500 included all the Palestinians who have been rearrested since they were freed in 2011 as part of a deal in which Israel exchanged 1,027 terrorists for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who was captured and held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip or five years.

The report says Israeli officials rejected the demands as too high for the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soliders killed in Gaza in 2014 war that are being held by Hamas.

Last month, the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper quoted a Hamas source who said Israel was looking to complete a prisoner swap deal before national elections on April 9.

The official said indirect talks with Israel had been renewed “amid a strong willingness to reach a deal ahead of the elections, in light of the drop in support of [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu in the polls.”

A Hamas spokesman later denied the report.

Litzman says UTJ won’t join Gantz-Lapid government

United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman says the ultra-Orthodox party will not sit in a government that includes Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

“Lapid humiliated the ultra-Orthodox public, and we will not sit in a government in which he is a member,” Litzman says at the launch of UTJ’s Knesset campaign in Bnei Brak according to Hebrew media reports.

“Lapid was the worst finance minister in Israel’s history,” he adds. “He damaged both our pockets as well as our laws and looted from us.”

Last week, Yesh Atid joined with Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the April elections. Opinion polls on Israeli TV stations have showed the new “Blue and White” alliance jumping ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

US ‘not getting involved’ in Netanyahu’s far-right election merger

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US is not getting involved in the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with an far-right political party ahead of national elections.

“We’re not about to get involved in an election to interfere in an election of a democracy,” he tells CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview. “Election campaigns are tough. We’ll allow the Israeli people to sort this out.

“I’m confident that when the election is over, the United States will continue to have a strong, important, very deep relationship with Israel that protects the American people and benefits Israel as well,” Pompeo says.

Netanyahu last week pushed for the merger that folded the Otzma Yehudit party into the larger Jewish Home party for April elections.

Otzma Yehudit’s leadership is made up of disciples of the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Jewish supremacist Kach party was banned under Israeli law for incitement to racism and later declared a terrorist group.

The deal has been widely criticized in Israel, and even strong supporters of Israel in the US have spoken out against it. The American Jewish Committee, a major pro-Israel advocacy group, and the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC have both called Otzma “reprehensible.”

Suspected Bangladesh plane hijacker shot dead — army

Bangladesh commandos stormed a passenger jet in the country’s southeast Sunday and shot dead an armed man who allegedly tried to hijack the Dubai-bound flight, an army official says.

The suspect, described by officials as a 25-year-old Bangladeshi man, was shot as special forces rushed the plane after it landed safely in Chittagong.

The 148 passengers and crew aboard the Bangladesh Biman flight BG147 were all rescued unharmed, according to officials.

But the suspected hijacker was injured and died shortly after being arrested, army spokesman Major General Motiur Rahman tells reporters.

“He is a Bangladeshi. We found a pistol from him and nothing else,” Rahman says.

All the passengers aboard were evacuated after the airport was sealed of by Army, Navy and elite police.

— AFP

Egypt rejects UN criticism of trials for hanged convicts

Egypt has rejected criticism from a UN human rights body about a recent spike in executions allegedly involving confessions made under torture, saying Cairo categorically rejects any infringement into the affairs of its judiciary.

In a statement, the foreign affairs ministry says the nine death sentences of alleged Islamists last week followed “fair and transparent trials.” The nine were found guilty of taking part in a 2015 bombing that killed the country’s top prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.

UN Human Rights Office spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters Friday that Egyptian authorities should take all measures needed to guarantee due process and investigate allegations of torture. Colville said that judges had ignored accounts of torture to extract confessions.

A total of 15 people have been executed in Egypt this year.

— AP

Police arrest 13 illegal migrants working at Tel Aviv strip clubs

Police say 11 illegal immigrants working at Tel Aviv strip clubs were arrested last week in a joint sting with immigration authorities.

In a statement released this afternoon, police say the 11 strippers and two kitchen workers — all foreign nationals from Eastern Europe and the Philippines who were employed without a valid permit — will be deported from Israel.

Police said arrest raid targeted five well-known strip clubs in Tel Aviv as part of a wider crackdown by authorities against illegal activities at adult entertainment venues in Israel.

Two unarmed Palestinians nabbed crossing from Gaza into Israel

IDF troops arrested two unarmed Palestinians who crossed into Israeli territory from the northern Gaza Strip, the army says.

The suspects were picked up shortly after they breached the security fence. They were handed over to the Shin Bet security service for questioning.

— Judah Ari Gross

More than 100 Venezuelan troops desert — Colombian authorities

More than 100 Venezuelan soldiers have deserted and crossed into Colombia, immigration authorities report as tensions rise between the neighbors over humanitarian aid.

The defections come with Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido calling on the military to abandon President Nicolas Maduro and help him bring in desperately needed aid to alleviate shortages of food and medicine.

Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard members check damages at the Francisco de Paula Santander international bridge in Urena, Venezuela on February 24, 2019, following protests in the region. (LUIS ROBAYO / AFP)

Iran releases French woman detained for nearly 4 months

Iran’s official IRNA news agency is saying that the country has released a French businesswoman detained for nearly four months.

The report quotes the spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, Bahram Ghasemi, as saying Iran has released Nelly Erin-Cambervelle, a 59-year-old businesswoman from Martinique, who was in jail for entering the country illegally.

Ghasemi says the French national was released “in recent days,” according to the report, which did not elaborate.

Last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France was in touch with Iran to improve conditions for Erin-Cambervelle, who was arrested in October on the Iranian Persian Gulf island of Kish.

France co-signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and is working to keep it alive despite the US withdrawal in 2018.

— AP

Prisons service bracing for disturbances from Hamas inmates

The Israel Prisons Service says it is bracing for disturbances from Hamas security prisoners, after officers thwarted attempts to direct terrorist attacks by members of the Gaza group.

An IPS statement says that personnel are preparing for various scenarios, including attacks on staff, mass insubordination, and the sabotaging prison equipment.

The statement says the additional security measures were ordered after the IPS “foiled attempts to direct terrorist attacks from inside the prisons.”

“It has been made clear to the prisoners that any such actions will be met with a harsh response,” the IPS says.

At Arab league summit, Cairo and Riyadh say Palestinian issue remains top priority

Egypt and Saudi Arabia tell Arab and European leaders at a economic and security summit that support for Palestinians is key for regional stability.

Opening the two-day summit at the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit says solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is the quickest way to stabilize the region.”

“The Palestinian issue will not be solved by economic measures here or there,” he says.

In his remarks, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman reiterates his government’s support for an independent Palestinian state, and says the issue remains a top priority.

“The Palestinian cause is the first issue for all Arab countries and we uphold the rights of the Palestinians, especially the establishment of the state, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Leaders from EU and Arab League countries are holding their first-ever summit to discuss migration, security and business deals.

In addition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the leaders are addressing unrest in Syria and Yemen.

Pompeo pledges continued pressure on Venezuela’s Maduro

The United States will continue to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro until he understands his days are “numbered,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday.

Pompeo’s comments come a day after clashes between activists trying to deliver US-backed humanitarian aid into Venezuela and troops loyal to Maduro. Two people were killed in a clash on the Brazilian border and some 300 injured in other violent clashes near Colombia.

Pompeo tells “Fox News Sunday” and CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Trump administration will continue to support opposition leader Juan Guaido. Pompeo declines to rule out US military force as an option, but he adds that “there’s more sanctions to be had, there’s more humanitarian assistance I think that we can provide.”

Maduro has blocked such aid at the border and resisted calls to step aside and let Guaido take power.

Pompeo says the US will seek “other ways” to get food aid to Venezuelans.

Vice President Mike Pence travels to Bogota, Colombia, tomorrow for an emergency meeting on Venezuela with foreign ministers from more than a dozen, mostly conservative Latin American and Caribbean states. Guaido said on Saturday that he would meet with Pence in Bogota.

— AP

Tycoon jailed for insider trading requests clemency from Rivlin

Nochi Dankner, a businessman serving a three-year prison sentence for insider trading has reportedly asked President Reuven Rivlin to shorten his sentence citing his ill health.

In the request, Dankner’s lawyers say their client “accepts the line of the law, regrets his actions and accepts responsibility for them,” according to a Channel 13 news report.

Rivlin’s office said the the president would consider the request together with Justice Department.

Dankner was jailed in October carrying out millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent transactions in an attempt to influence the share price of the troubled IDB Holding Corp., where he served as controlling shareholder.

Israel says plot to smuggle guns across Jordan border thwarted

Israeli security forces foiled an apparent plot to smuggle 37 handguns into Israel from Jordan earlier this month, in an operation that has been kept under a gag order until today, police say.

On February 7, Border Police officers spotted the main suspect, a Palestinian man from the Nablus area, as he attempted to cross into northern Israel from Jordan wearing a large backpack.

The border guards, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces, arrested the man shortly after he crossed into the northern Jordan Valley and found inside his bag the 37 pistols of various types, police say.

Police arrested three other Palestinian suspects — also from the Nablus area — whom they believe were planning to pick up the suspect after he crossed the border.

— Judah Ari Gross

Mozes told police Netanyahu never offered quid pro quo deal — report

Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes denied to police that he ever discussed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu legislation to impose curbs on a rival paper in exchange for more favorable coverage in his own publications, according to a Channel 12 news report.

The report says that Mozes told police when he was questioned in 2017 that he and Netanyahu on several occasions discussed his rival, Israel Hayom owner Sheldon Adelson, but claimed there was never a quid pro-quo deal on the table.

Yesterday, reports in Hebrew-langugae media said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is leaning toward not indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the corruption case involving Mozes, known as Case 2000, going against the recommendation from the Justice Department.

Mandelblit is expected to publish his decision by next week.

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Gaza protesters call for Abbas resignation at rally against PA leader

Hundreds of Palestinians are rallying in Gaza City demanding that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas step down.

Photos and videos of Saraya Square shows crowds this afternoon chanting “Go, go, Abbas, that’s the demand of the people.”

The rally is organized by a movement called the Free Gaza Movement, whose members are circulating anti-Abbas content on social media platforms.

Over the past year, Abbas has cut budgets allocated to Gaza to pressure Hamas to return control of the Strip to the PA. While he has reinstated some of the funds he originally froze, Gaza’s Hamas rulers continue to criticize him for not restoring all of the funds.