Girl in Gaza-area moshav finds explosive in yard
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Third Israeli on quarantined cruise ship tests positive for coronavirus

Passenger taken off Diamond Princess, which is anchored off Japan, following diagnosis; Foreign Ministry officials reportedly critical of new self-quarantine guidelines

A bus carrying US citizens leaves the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port, next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with people quarantined on board due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, February 17, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)
A bus carrying US citizens leaves the Daikaku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port, next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with people quarantined on board due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, February 17, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP)

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

Suspected far-right extremist was on Germany’s radar for months — reports

BERLIN — German media reports that the main suspect detained last week as part of police raids on alleged far-right extremists had been on authorities’ radar for several months.

Der Spiegel reports that 53-year-old Werner S. from the Augsburg region was classified by the German security services as a potential violent threat.

The man, whose surname wasn’t released for privacy reasons, was among 12 men detained Friday in nationwide raids on suspicion of forming and supporting a “right-wing terrorist organization.”

A federal judge yesterday ordered the men held in investigative detention.

The Welt am Sonntag weekly reports today that the group referred to itself as “The Hard Core” and had links to a white supremacist group called Soldiers of Odin, founded in Finland in 2015.

German prosecutors allege the suspects wanted to achieve their goal “with as yet-unspecified attacks against politicians, asylum-seekers and Muslims to provoke a civil war-like situation.”

Authorities in Germany have warned of the growing threat of far-right extremism. Last June, a regional official from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party was killed by a suspected neo-Nazi. In October, a gunman with anti-Semitic views attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle, killing two passersby.

— AP

Abbas spokesman says Israel-PA security ties are ongoing, but ‘won’t last forever’

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says that security cooperation between Israel and the PA is ongoing, but warns that it may not last.

“Until now, until this moment, the security cooperation between us and Israel is continuing as Israel. But this won’t last forever,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh tells reporters.

After the release of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which the Palestinians have rejected as biased toward Israel, Abbas warned there would no longer be security ties with Israel and the United States.

A senior Palestinian official told this month that while the PA has not halted security cooperation despite Abbas’s threat, ties between the sides are tense.

“We are acting with patience because we don’t want to make things worse. We want to show the Israelis that we are fighting seriously against terror,” Abu Rudeineh he says.

He also says the PA is not taking a side on Israel’s upcoming elections, the third in less than a year.

“All [we] want is a partner who will support peace. It doesn’t matter if it’s [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu or [Blue and White chairman Benny] Gantz, someone who will agree to sit at the [negotiating] table,” Abbas’s spokesman says.

Small right-wing party drops out of election as part of agreement with Likud

The right-wing Tzomet party agrees to pull out of the March 2 elections and back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

The decision comes after the party’s leader, Moshe Garin, met today with Netanyahu and Likud Minister Eli Cohen.

According to Likud, they agree that in exchange for Tzomet withdrawing from the race and backing Likud, an educational institute will be established to memorialize former IDF chief of staff Rafael “Raful” Eitan, the founder of Tzomet.

Likud says the agreement is also meant to address the issue of “rural settlement.”

“This is another important step on the way to obtaining 61 seats and to preventing the wasting of more votes from the right-wing bloc,” Likud writes on Twitter.

The party, whose full name is “Tzomet — Settlement and Agriculture,” received 14,805 votes in September’s Knesset elections, 0.33 percent of the total votes cast.

After coming short of a majority in elections in April and September, Netanyahu has been calling on small right-wing factions to drop out of the race in a bid to sure up support for Likud.

Girl in Gaza-area moshav finds explosive in yard

A girl in a farming community near the Gaza Strip finds an explosive device in the yard of her family’s home.

According to Channel 13, the girl’s mother calls police sappers to the family’s home in Moshav Shuva, who detonate the explosive in an open area.

The device contained a large quantity of explosive material, the network says.

Camouflage fabrics bound for ‘terrorist elements’ in Gaza confiscated at West Bank crossing

Guards from the Border Crossing Authority confiscate camouflage fabrics that the Defense Ministry says was being shipped to “terrorist elements” in the Gaza Strip.

The Defense Ministry says the fabrics were discovered by the guards at the Tarqumiyah crossing in the southern West Bank.

“During a check of civilian goods that were sent from the area of the Palestinian Authority and destined for Gaza, the inspectors found military textile items that were hidden inside civilian equipment,” the ministry says in a statement.

PA premier says Trump peace plan ‘will be buried’

MUNICH — The Palestinian Authority prime minister lashes out at US President Donald Trump’s proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying it would be “buried very soon.”

Speaking today at the Munich Security Conference, Mohammad Shtayyeh says the US plan was “no more than a memo of understanding between (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu and Trump.”

Shtayyeh criticizes the fact that the proposal would leave a future Palestinian state fragmented and with “no sovereignty,” allowing Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank. He urges other countries to reject the Trump proposal while maintaining that Palestinians “are open to serious negotiations.”

Shtayyeh suggests the Palestinians would seek to increase pressure on Israel through international organizations, citing the recent release by the UN human rights office of a list of more than 100 companies allegedly complicit in violating Palestinian human rights by operating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Referring to the upcoming Israeli election, Shtayyeh says the difference between Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz and Netanyahu was “not more than the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola.”

— AP

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, chairs a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley village of Fasayil, September 16, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

Netanyahu meets southern municipal heads, says Israel ‘ready for any scenario’

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with municipal leaders from southern Israel amid continued rocket and explosive balloon attacks from the Gaza Strip.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu updated the municipal leaders on the latest developments relating to Gaza and said we are ready for any scenario, including a wide-ranging operation,” a statement from his office says.

Netanahu also praises them for their “steadfastness,” according to his office.

Among those attending the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem are the mayor of Sderot and the heads of the Eshkol, Hof Ashkelon, Sha’ar Hanegev and Sdot Hanegev regional councils.

The meeting comes after Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired two rockets toward Israeli territory last night, despite recent reports of a ceasefire between Israel and the Strip’s Hamas rulers.

Israeli jets carried out airstrikes in Gaza in response.

Gaza-area municipal chiefs to Netanyahu: ‘Unending’ elections shouldn’t overshadow security in south

Municipal leaders from Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip release their own statement after meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“In the meeting, they clarified [to Netanyahu] that the fact that Israel is in an unending period of elections cannot take away — not even a bit — from maintaining the security of 60,000 citizens of the State of Israel who live in the Gaza periphery and Sderot,” the statement says.

According to the statement, Netanyahu signed a “document of understanding” presented by the municipal heads on “creating security stability and long-term quiet in the area,” that other party leaders have already signed.

“We expect to see a change in policy toward the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip,” the municipal chiefs say.

Israel introduces self-quarantine for travelers from 4 East Asian destinations

The Health Ministry announces that Israelis returning from four destinations in East Asia will now be required to self-quarantine for two weeks amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The destinations are Thailand, Singapore and the semi-autonomous Chinese cities of Hong Kong and Macau.

Previously only travelers coming from China were subject to such a self-quarantine.

“Starting today, whoever returned from these countries will be in isolation at home until 14 days from the date of return,” the ministry says in a statement.

The ministry adds that the new guidelines are meant “to prevent as much as possible [the virus’s] spread in Israel.”

Earlier today, the Health Ministry said that two Israeli passengers aboard a quarantined cruise ship off Japan tested positive for the virus, which has infected over 69,000 worldwide.

Rouhani says US sanctions won’t force Iran into nuclear talks

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says US sanctions on Iran’s economy won’t force it into negotiations on its nuclear program.

“They think that they can force us to the negotiation table by maximum pressure… but this is impossible,” Rouhani says during a press conference, according to his website.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seen on a camera monitor as he speaks during a news conference in the capital Tehran, February 16, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

He adds: “We will never go to the negotiation table with weakness, but we will explicitly and powerfully have our say before the world.”

Rouhani says Iran will only negotiate with the US under “fair conditions” and predicts that America will eventually return to talks on Tehran’s terms.

“We will continue the path with the same power and we will eventually force the enemies to come to the negotiation table like before. In the 2015 negotiations it was them who requested to negotiate,” he says.

US President Donald Trump pulled out of the international accord meant to limit Iran’s nuclear work in 2018 and reimposed stringent sanctions.

Turkey tells Russia that Syrian attacks on Idlib must stop

ANKARA, Turkey — The Turkish foreign minister says he has told his Russian counterpart that the Damascus regime’s attacks on the last rebel-held bastion in Syria must stop.

Backed by Russian air power, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been intensifying his assault on the holdout northwestern province of Idlib.

And tensions have been running high between Ankara and Moscow after 14 Turks were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces in the region.

“I stressed that the attacks in Idlib must stop and it was necessary to establish a lasting ceasefire that would not be violated,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tells journalists today in Germany.

Cavusoglu met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday during the Munich Security Conference.

Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of a 2018 deal reached between Ankara and Moscow in the Russian resort of Sochi to prevent a regime offensive.

But despite the agreement, Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have pressed ahead with an assault to retake the province, killing hundreds of people.


Right-wing religious parties sign fresh loyalty pledge to Netanyahu

Once again, right-wing religious parties allied with Likud sign a document reaffirming they’ll only back Prime Minister Netanyahu to form a government after the March 2 elections.

The letter is signed by Yamina, United Torah Judaism and Shas. It was initiated by Interior Minister leader Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas.

“We’ll only support Netanyahu. We are convinced that the right-wing bloc will succeed in getting 61 seats in the elections and assembling a national and strong government for the people of Israeli,” Channel 13 news quotes the letter as saying.

Following the September elections, the three parties together with Likud agreed to act as a single bloc of 55 MKs headed by Netanyahu. The bloc was a major stumbling block in coalition talks with the centrist Blue and White party, which had campaigned on forming a government without the religious parties.

Polls have consistently forecast that the right-wing parties will again come short of a majority in the upcoming elections, likely portending further political deadlock.

Beleaguered Rouhani rules out resigning as Iran’s president

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rules out resigning and vows to see out his term, even as he admits he had offered to step aside twice since being elected.

Speaking ahead of a general election next Friday, Rouhani also appeals to voters to turn out despite the fact that many moderate and reformist candidates were disqualified from the race.

Rumors have swirled in Iran recently that the 71-year-old, whose second and last term ends next year, had been planning to quit, but his office denied the reports.

Rouhani’s government has come under fire over the state of Iran’s sanctions-hit economy and for allegedly failing to fulfill election promises.

“My resignation does not make much sense… we have made promises to the people and we will continue to fulfill those promises” despite the economic situation and pressure from “the enemy,” Rouhani says, referring to the US.

“The idea of resigning (because of these recent problems) never occurred to me.”

But Rouhani admits he had offered to resign twice in the past, and that they were rejected by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


Insurance companies rent plane to return Israelis on quarantined cruise ship

A number of insurance companies lease a plane to bring Israelis quarantined on a cruise ship off Japan back to Israel.

The companies say the plane is in Turkey and ready to fly at the instruction of the government, according to Hebrew media reports.

Japan last week turned down Israel’s request to allow the 15 Israelis on the Diamond Princess to disembark, but has since allowed citizens of the United States and other countries to leave the ship and be returned to their respective home countries.

Earlier today, the Health Ministry said two of the Israelis aboard the ship tested positive for the coronavirus, which has infected over 69,000 people across the globe.

Blue and White says latest loyalty pledge to Netanyahu means 4th elections

The Blue and White party says right-wing religious parties’ signing of a loyalty pledge to Prime Minister Netanyahu will prolong Israel’s political deadlock.

“The [right-wing] bloc is leading to further elections,” the party says in a statement.

“Netanyahu doesn’t have a government, like he didn’t after the last two election campaigns,” it adds.

Netanyahu counters by repeating his stump line that Blue and White leader Gantz cannot form a government without backing from the Joint List, an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties.

“The commitment of the right-wing bloc is the final nail in Gantz’s bluff,” he tweets.

Gantz ordered to remove Facebook post with photo of soldiers

The head of the Central Elections Committee orders Blue and White chairman to take down a Facebook post that includes a picture of Israeli soldiers.

Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, the head of the committee, also fines Gantz NIS 4,000 ($1,167).

The offending post included a picture of soldiers who were injured earlier this month during a suspected car-ramming attack in Jerusalem.

Campaign advertising rules forbid using uniformed soldiers in campaign material and it is illegal to campaign on IDF bases.

Assad vows to defeat rebels, as Syrian regime forces capture new ground

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s President Bashar Assad says his government is determined to win back all Syrian territories, as state media reports significant advances against the last rebel held enclaves in the country’s northwest.

The Syrian government offensive has piled pressure on opposition forces backed by Turkey. Today, Syrian troops captured at least 30 villages and towns in the western Aleppo countryside, state media and activists say.

The fighting in rural Aleppo and nearby Idlib province has unleashed a humanitarian crisis. Over 800,000 civilians out of nearly 4 million living in the enclave have been displaced, living in open fields and temporary shelters for the most part in harsh winter conditions.

The Syrian government’s new advance effectively secures its hold on Aleppo province and its capital for the first time since 2012.

State news agency SANA reports 30 villages and towns around the city were captured today.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based war monitor Syria Observatory for Human Rights, confirms the report.

“This means the control of Aleppo (city), and the countryside and securing all of Aleppo,” Abdul-Rahman says.

The armed opposition is now squeezed into a shrinking area of nearby Idlib province, where the government is also on the offensive. The opposition had been driven out of Aleppo city’s eastern quarters in late 2016, which they controlled for years while battling government forces who were in charge in the western part.

— AP

Foreign Ministry officials said to criticize new self-quarantine directives

Foreign Ministry officials are criticizing the Health Ministry’s decision to require Israelis returning from four destinations in East Asia to self-quarantine at home amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, according to Hebrew media reports.

The Ynet news site quotes Foreign Ministry officials complaining that the new order is too sweeping and is causing damage diplomatically.

The Health Ministry’s new guidelines apply to travelers coming from Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong ,and Macau. The ministry had previously only required people who were recently in China to self-quarantine.

Third Israeli on quarantined cruise ship tests positive for coronavirus

A third Israeli aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, the Foreign Ministry says.

“The passenger was taken off the ship a little while ago,” a statement from the ministry says.

Two Israelis aboard the ship, which is anchored off Japan, tested positive for the virus earlier today.

Some EU states said pushing for recognition of Palestinian state

A number of European countries are pushing for EU member states to recognize a Palestinian state as a response to US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, the Haaretz daily reports.

According to the report, the initiative is being led by Luxembourg, whose Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn has discussed it with numerous countries, though it remains unclear if they support the move.

Israel is working to block such a move and today told countries that could recognize a Palestinian state that doing so would thwart any possibility of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, the report says.

Other states reportedly backing the intiative are Sweden and Malta.

Following the release of the US plan, the EU’s foreign minister released a statement strongly criticizing the proposal, though the bloc as a whole has not condemned the initiative amid opposition from some member states.

Gantz says loyalty pledge to Netanyahu ‘not worth the paper it’s written on’

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz has dubbed the pact between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party and right-wing religious factions a “block of ice,” while warning that the alliance will lead to a fourth round of elections.

Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Yamina earlier today signed another pledge to only back Netanyahu to form a government after the upcoming elections.

Gantz says the pledge “is not worth the paper it’s written on” and in a play on one of Netanyahu’s attack lines against him, says Likud cannot form a government with the premier at the helm.

“If Blue and White wins by a large margin of seats, this will melt the block of ice,” Gantz says during a campaign event at Kibbutz Evron.

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Girl in Gaza-area moshav finds explosive in yard

A girl in a farming community near the Gaza Strip finds an explosive device in the yard of her family’s home.

According to Channel 13, the girl’s mother calls police sappers to the family’s home in Moshav Shuva, who detonate the explosive in an open area.

The device contained a large quantity of explosive material, the network says.