The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.
New development reported in Bitan corruption probe, but gag order remains
The corruption probe into former coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud) has expanded, sources close to the investigation say, with a new development Sunday whose details remain under gag order.
Bitan is under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes from businesspeople in the Tel Aviv-area city of Rishon Lezion while he served as its deputy mayor. Last month, police reported another major development as the Bitan probe expanded to include new allegations of corruption reportedly linked to real estate developer Moshe Yosef.
Police also recently arrested a top official at the construction company Danya Cebus on suspicion of paying some NIS 300,000 in bribes to Bitan for help in advancing plans for building gas stations along the Route 6 highway.
Both suspects are reportedly in negotiations to turn state witness.
Turkey vows to attack Kurdish enclave in Syria within ‘days’
ISTANBUL — Turkey’s president says it will launch a military assault on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria “in the coming days.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday the operation against the Afrin enclave will aim to “purge terror” from his country’s southern border.
Afrin is controlled by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey views as a terror group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast.
Erdogan said the new operation would be an extension of Turkey’s 2016 incursion into northern Syria, which was aimed at combating the Islamic State group and stemming the advance of US-backed Kurdish forces. Turkish troops are stationed in rebel-held territory on both sides of Afrin.
El Al plane makes emergency landing in Canada
An El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv makes an emergency landing en route over Canada Sunday after passengers reportedly hear loud noises from the plane’s engines.
No one is reported hurt in the incident.
Flight 008 left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but was forced to land over Goose Bay in Canada.
The airline tells Hebrew media the pilots landed the plane due to a technical malfunction, and “El Al staff are working to repair the malfunction and to take care of the passengers.”
Gunmen kill Christian in Egypt’s Sinai
EL-ARISH, Egypt — Egyptian security officials say gunmen have shot dead a Christian man in the turbulent north of the Sinai Peninsula, the latest attack to target members of the country’s Christian minority.
The officials say three masked gunmen carried out the attack and identified the victim as 35-year-old Bassem Attallah.
No group claimed responsibility for the Saturday attack, which bore the hallmarks of Islamic State, which is spearheading a years-long insurgency in northern Sinai. IS has repeatedly targeted Egypt’s Christians, killing more than 100 in a series of deadly bombings and shootings since December 2016. The latest attack was last month, when a gunman opened fire outside a church in Cairo, killing nine people.
Real estate entrepreneur Dror Glazer testifying in Bitan corruption probe
The real estate entrepreneur Dror Glazer is testifying in the David Bitan corruption probe Sunday at the offices of the Israel Police’s national fraud unit Lahav 433 in Lod.
Glazer is one of several suspects in the major bribery case to be reportedly negotiating to turn state witness. He is suspected of paying some NIS 250,000 in bribes to Bitan in exchange for help in advancing approval of his real estate interests.
The testimony comes on the same day as reports of a major development in the case — though its details remain under a gag order.
Uruguay hostel rejects Israeli guests over owner’s anti-Israel views
RIO DE JANEIRO — A Uruguayan hotelier rejected an Israeli couple as guests claiming he disagrees with Israeli politics.
Amit Bradush, 22, and his partner received a personalized message from the hotelier via the Booking.com platform explaining their reservation had been canceled because his political view was “very contrary to the policies of your country,” reports the El Pais news website.
“I had not seen that they were from Israel, I strongly oppose the policies of their country, they are not welcome in my house,” Buena Vista ecological resort’s owner Mauricio Pinero wrote, saying that the pre-payment had been reimbursed.
He added that young Israeli guests who are on their post-army trek are particularly difficult.
“I am neither a discriminator nor an anti-Semite. The kids who come after finishing military service in Israel have a profile of celebration, arrogance and things that are not good. We work with a different type of audience. It is not a problem with anyone in particular,” he added.
Jewish and Israeli officials have criticized the action, which drew intense media coverage in Uruguay.
Uruguay’s Minister of Tourism Liliam Kechichian said the incident is “totally inadmissible” and will be investigated. “In Uruguay, it is not acceptable to discriminate on the grounds of religion. We hope that Israeli tourists will continue to visit Uruguay and enjoy the beauty of the country,” she said.
Prominent Egyptian activist acquitted of illegal protest
CAIRO — An appeals court in the Egyptian city of Alexandria acquits a prominent activist and rights lawyer of charges of taking part in an illegal demonstration.
Mahienour el-Masry was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison last month over participating last year in a protest against the government’s transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
The 2016 deal between Saudi Arabia and Egypt sparked rare protests in Egypt, which has all but banned demonstrations since late 2013.
El-Masry, 31, is widely known for her activism in labor movements, and on behalf of Syrian and Palestinian refugees living in Egypt. She has been outspoken on the rights of detainees and political prisoners.
Defense minister moves to legalize West Bank outpost of terror victim
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman proposes an official cabinet decision to grant legal recognition to the illegal West Bank outpost Havat Gilad.
The outpost was home to the late Raziel Shevach, who was murdered in a terror attack on a nearby road on Wednesday.
Liberman’s proposal, which must still be passed by a vote of ministers, says the new official settlement will be recognized only on Israeli-owned land.
Reform movement slams foot-dragging on Western Wall egalitarian platform
Following a High Court of Justice hearing on Sunday on the cancellation of the Western Wall compromise last year, the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center slams the government’s foot-dragging on establishing and expanding the egalitarian platform at the holy site.
“In the Supreme Court discussion today it became clear that the Government of Israel does not have a timetable for establishing the egalitarian platform and that no detailed planning process has taken place,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, in a statement.
“The actions of the government over the past two years show that it obviously intends to keep the existing egalitarian platform completely separate from the Kotel, without using the appropriate budgets and without representation for the groups using the egalitarian platform in the governance of the site,” he adds.
The group says it is “our belief and hope that when the Court sees the partial and unsuitable plans of the government, it will decide that its conduct discriminates against millions of Jews in Israel and throughout the world. We will continue to operate both in the legal and public spheres in order to achieve the desired reality where every Jew and every Jewish community can pray according to their traditions at the Kotel in a respectful and egalitarian manner.”
National security adviser meets Indian counterpart to talk defense ties
Israel’s national security advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval at the latter’s home.
Ben-Shabbat is in India as part of the delegation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who began a state visit to the world’s largest democracy earlier today.
The two top security advisers discuss “the strengthening of security ties between the countries, and pending defense deals,” according to sources in the PM’s delegation.
Ten Palestinians held on suspicion of planning an event affiliated with Hamas
The Jerusalem Police arrest 10 Palestinians on Sunday suspected of activities linked to a terror organization. One of them was a prisoner released earlier in the day.
The 10 “were arrested after planning on holding an event affiliated with the Hamas terrorist organization,” a police spokesperson says.
“The suspects are scheduled to appear later before the courts based on the developing investigation,” the statement adds.
Israeli general: We have ‘found a solution to all the terror tunnels’
Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s top military liaison to the Palestinians, tells an Arabic-language television news network that Israel “has found a solution to all the terror tunnels.”
“Israeli genius has found a solution to all the terror tunnels,” he says, according to Hebrew-language media translations of the interview.
“Just as there’s ‘Iron Dome’ for the air, there’s a technological umbrella of steel underground,” he adds. “I want to send a message to everyone who is digging or gets too close to the tunnels: As you’ve seen in the past two months, these tunnels bring only death.”
Mordechai refers to Israel’s attacks against three major tunnels that crossed into Israeli terror which the IDF has detonated in recent weeks, causing the deaths of Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives.
Intelligence minister implies Israel wasn’t behind Lebanon car bomb
Intelligence Minister Israel Katz is the only Israeli official to offer on-the-record comments on the car bomb that wounded a top Hamas official in Lebanon earlier today.
In an interview with the right-wing Galei Israel radio station, Katz is asked if Israel had a hand in the bombing. He quips, “If we’d been involved, this wouldn’t have ended with him lightly wounded.”
Mohammad Hamdan was reportedly lightly wounded in the bombing in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, though one medical source contradicted the report and said the wounds were severe.
Lebanese news outlet Al Mayadeen, affiliated with the Hezbollah terror group, was one of a few media sites that reported Israeli aircraft were in the area of the explosion. Hamas’s political bureau in Lebanon also suggested Israel may have been involved.
“The occupation is the only beneficiary of harming security in Lebanon. We will leave it to the competent security authorities to investigate the explosion that targeted one of our [comrades] in Sidon,” the terror group said, in a statement carried on its Al-Aqsa TV news outlet.
Protests mark Tunisia uprising anniversary
TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisians on Sunday mark seven years since the uprising that launched the Arab Spring, with fresh protests and some people expressing pride but others anger over persistent economic problems.
The North African country is seen as having had a relatively smooth democratic transition since the January 14, 2011 toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.
But seven years later, anger has risen over new austerity measures after a year of rising prices, with protesters again chanting the 2011 slogans of “Work, Freedom, Dignity.”
On Sunday, several hundred people take part in rallies in the capital Tunis, responding to calls to demonstrate from a powerful labor union and several political parties.
Security is tight as protesters pour through checkpoints into Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicenter of the 2011 demonstrations, but no violence is reported.
US-led coalition to build 30,000-strong border force in Syria
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group says Sunday it is working to create a 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria, drawing sharp condemnation from Turkey.
With the offensive against IS winding down, the coalition and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance are beginning to shift their focus to border security, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon tells AFP.
“There is a goal of a final force of approximately 30,000,” about half of whom would be retrained SDF fighters, he says.
“There are approximately 230 individuals that are training right now in the border security force. That’s an inaugural class,” Dillon says.
Abbas confirms US offered Abu Dis as Palestinian capital instead of Jerusalem
In the latest Palestinian response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas confirms Sunday reports that US officials offered Palestinians the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis as the capital of a future Palestinian state, instead of Jerusalem itself.
Abbas made the comments at a meeting of the PLO’s Central Council in Ramallah Sunday.
— Dov Lieber
Liberman vows all Hamas’s offensive tunnels will be destroyed in 2018
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vows that “by the end of this year, we’ll remove all the tunnels Hamas has.”
In an interview with Channel 2, he says, “That’s the goal. I believe it will be even before this, but the goal is that by the end of 2018 Hamas won’t have a single offensive tunnel.”
He says Hamas won’t go to war over Israel’s dismantling of its tunnel infrastructure. “Hamas isn’t ready for war, and I don’t think it believes a war would end in a different way that we believe it would end.”
Liberman: No humanitarian improvement in Gaza without release of Israelis
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also says there will not be an improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza until Israel and Hamas reach an agreement on the release of Israelis held by Hamas and the return to Israel of the bodies of two IDF soldiers held by the group.
“There won’t be an improvement in the humanitarian situation until we reach an agreement on our captives,” he says.
He then adds more generally: “Our principle is rehabilitation for disarmament. Without the disarmament of Gaza, we won’t allow its rehabilitation.”
In defiant Ramallah speech, Abbas tells PLO leaders ‘Israel ended Oslo’
In his fiery speech to the PLO’s Central Council in Ramallah on Sunday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas sounds a defiant tone, warning that the 25-year-old Oslo peace process was at an end, and rejecting outright US President Donald Trump’s efforts to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“Israel ended Oslo, and among the decisions we must take is on the Oslo issue,” he tells the Central Council delegates.
Referring to Trump’s statement that he sought to make the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians, Abbas says, “We say to Trump and everyone else, ‘No, no to your plan.’ We reject it.
“We refused the ‘deal of the century.’ This is the slap in the face of the century,” he quips.
US set to cut UN money for Palestinian refugees
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to withhold tens of millions of dollars from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, cutting the year’s first contribution by more than half or perhaps entirely, and making additional donations contingent on major changes to the organization, according to US officials.
US President Donald Trump has not made a final decision, but appears more likely to send only $60 million of the planned $125 million first installment to the UN Relief and Works Agency, say the officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Future contributions would require the agency, facing heavy Israeli criticism, to demonstrate significant changes in operations, they said, adding that one suggestion under consideration would require the Palestinians to first re-enter peace talks with Israel.
The White House and State Department did not immediately respond Sunday to questions about the decision.
The administration could announce its decision as early as Tuesday, the officials say. The plan to withhold some of the money is backed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who offered it as a compromise to demands for more drastic measures by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the officials say.
NATO chief says UN convention won’t rid world of nuclear arms
STOCKHOLM — NATO’s secretary general says the military alliance supports the idea of a world without nuclear weapons, but does not believe it can be achieved by imposing a ban through the United Nations convention on nuclear weapons.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says during a speech at a security conference in Sweden on Sunday that ridding the world of nuclear weapons requires a period of “painful disarmament” that the UN convention cannot guarantee.
Stoltenberg’s message is clearly directed to the Swedish government, which is divided on whether to sign the convention.
The NATO chief told Swedish media earlier that Sweden, which is not a NATO member, could find its cooperative relationship with the alliance weakened if it does.
Modi hosts Netanyahu for Indian dinner
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosts Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara for a dinner of Indian cuisine at Modi’s official residence in New Delhi, India.
Netanyahu is on a state visit billed as an effort to boost economic and military ties between the two burgeoning allies.
Ex-Likud minister Sa’ar praises Netanyahu for Trump’s Jerusalem recognition
Former Likud cabinet minister and potential Netanyahu opponent in a future primary race Gideon Sa’ar praises the prime minister this evening for his efforts to help bring about US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last month.
Speaking at the first Israeli event by the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, Sa’ar lauds Netanyahu for pushing other countries to do the same.
“It was a historic decision, and I want to thank him and praise this decision for our people,” Sa’ar says of Trump’s decision.
“We saw that a few countries have already followed the US, and we have heard there are others who are negotiating about this. I want to praise Prime Minister Netanyahu for his efforts to bring more countries to do what the US did a few weeks ago,” Sa’ar adds.
Since Trump’s announcement in early December, the Czech Republic and Guatemala have announced similar plans to recognize the Israeli capital, with the latter saying it will move its embassy to Jerusalem soon.
Sa’ar, who was the keynote speaker at a Likud Central Committee gathering last month that backed a resolution urging the party’s leaders to formally annex to Israel large parts of the West Bank, also urges the government to build homes throughout Jerusalem, regardless of international pressure not to.
“There are those in the international community who will protest if we build 100 apartments in Jerusalem. They will do so for 100 houses, for 1,000 houses, for 10,000 houses — the same protests, so it is very important that today we determine the future of this city. The most important thing is to build in Jerusalem, for Jews, in the Jewish neighborhoods. This is how we can safeguard the future of our city,” he says.
— Raoul Wootliff