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Abbas expected to tap Fatah ally as next PM — officials

Ex-minister and peace negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh gets backing of party’s central committee for post, which now must be approved by PA chief

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

Ultra-Orthodox parties rule out joining a government that includes Lapid

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties rule out joining a government with centrist leader Yair Lapid and throw their full backing behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The parties make the announcement following a meeting between Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads Shas, and UTJ leader Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

“We won’t hold negotiations or conversations on a coalition that includes Yair Lapid under any situation,” they say in a joint statement after their talks at Deri’s office.

Lapid is No. 2 in the Blue and White faction, an alliance of his Yesh Atid party and former military chief Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience. Since entering politics, Lapid has pushed for ending exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students and requiring the teaching of core subjects at ultra-Orthodox schools.

“We will continue with all our strength to firmly support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and not Gantz,” Deri and Litzman say.

Though Blue and White is currently polling as the largest party, it would likely struggle to form a government without some of Netanyahu’s current right-wing and religious coalition partners.

The Shas and UTJ heads also agree to work together in the upcoming election campaign to boost the ultra-Orthodox when Israelis go to the polls on April 9.

“We will join as a single bloc and joint alliance only a coalition that Netanyahu forms and we’ll be strong by his side,” they say.

Egypt says 7 militants killed in Cairo shootouts

CAIRO — Egypt’s Interior Ministry says security forces have killed seven members of a militant group with suspected links to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo shootouts.

The ministry says three militants were killed on a highway known as Ring Road in Cairo’s district of Giza while the remaining four were killed in a firefight when police raided their hideout in the Egyptian capital’s suburb of Sixth of October on Thursday morning.

The ministry says weapons and ammunition were found among the militants’ possessions. A police officer was wounded.

Egypt, which has been under a state of emergency since April 2017, has been battling Islamic militants for years.

The insurgency gained strength after the 2013 overthrow of elected but divisive Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Militants mainly target security forces and minority Christians.

— AP

Arab MK and his son hospitalized after car crash

United (Arab) List MK Taleb Abu Arar and his son were taken to the Soroka Medical Center in the southern town of Beersheba after being involved in a car crash, the party says in a statement.

Abu Arar, who is number five on the Ra’am-Balad slate for the upcoming elections, is is good condition and is being treated in the emergency room, the party says. There is no immediate word on the condition of his son.

— Raoul Wootliff

Joint (Arab) List MK Taleb Abu Arar at the Supreme Court on January 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu: Army Radio ‘has no right to exist’ if no place for Gantz critic

Prime Minister Netanyahu expresses support for an Army Radio host critical of his chief election rival Benny Gantz after the latter’s Blue and White party released a statement condemning the radio personality.

“At Army Radio there is one broadcaster who doesn’t want to get in line with the left and the guild. He disturbs the daily propaganda broadcasts of Rino Tzror, Razi Barkai and others who favor Lapid and Gantz’s left-wing party, so they are exerting incredible pressure to toss him from the station,” Netanyahu writes on his personal Twitter account, referring to a pair of radio hosts at the military-run broadcaster.

“This won’t happen.”

Though it does not mention him by name, the prime minister’s tweet was in reference to Yakov Bardugo, whom Blue and White likened to a presenter from North Korea’s state broadcaster and said was serving his “master” Netanyahu.

“There is a limit to thought police and silencing of voices by the left. We’re not in North Korea. If there won’t also be a voice for the right, Army Radio has no right to exist,” adds Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.

Yakov Bardugo. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Army said to strike Hamas observation post in Gaza

Palestinian media reports the Israeli military targeted a Hamas observation post east of Rafah in southern Gaza.

The attack appears to be in response to the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into southern Israel from the Strip.

The Israeli military does not immediately confirm the strike.

— Judah Ari Gross

Lebanon’s president says Hezbollah part of Lebanese people

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s president has spoken up in defense of the country’s Hezbollah organization, telling a visiting British official that the Shiite group’s allegiances in the region do not affect internal Lebanese politics.

President Michel Aoun’s office quotes him as saying that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese people and is represented in the Cabinet and parliament.

The comments by Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, came after his meeting with Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt on Thursday.

Hezbollah is allied with the Syrian government and Iran.

Britain last week banned Hezbollah as a terrorist group, saying it’s destabilizing the Middle East. The US also considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Hezbollah said the decision was proof that the British government is “merely a puppet” that does the bidding of its American “masters.”

— AP

In this photo released by Lebanon’s official government photographer, Dalati Nohra, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, shakes hands with Britain’s Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 7, 2019. (Dalati Nohra via AP)

Israel, Jordan ink deal to allow more Eilat guest workers

Israel and Jordan sign an agreement to allow 500 more Jordanians to work each day in the Israeli southern resort city of Eilat.

“The daily Jordanian hotel workers project combines economic and social cooperation and is one of the fruits of piece that brings benefit to people on both sides of the border,” the Foreign Ministry says in a statement.

Under the new accord, 2,000 Jordanians will be allowed to Israel each day to work in Eilat, which is located across the border from the Red Sea port of Aqaba.

In November, a Jordanian guest worker in Eilat was arrested on suspicion of assaulting two Israeli colleagues. He was later indicted on terror charges over the attack.

Rabbi leads US evangelicals in visit to Muslim Azerbaijan

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A group of evangelical pastors from the US is visiting the predominantly Muslim Shiite nation of Azerbaijan to promote interfaith dialogue and highlight cooperation with Israel.

There have been similar outreach efforts with Arab Gulf leaders seeking to strengthen ties with the Trump administration through his evangelical base of supporters.

Unlike Arab Gulf states, Azerbaijan — which shares borders with Russia and Iran — already has diplomatic relations with Israel, its national carrier flies direct to Tel Aviv and its leaders hosted Israel’s prime minister in 2016.

New York-based Rabbi Marc Schneier, who led the all-evangelical delegation, tells The Associated Press on Thursday from the capital of Baku this was the first ever Christian evangelical delegation to visit Azerbaijan.

The group met President Ilham Aliyev, Muslim imams, local church leaders, and Israel’s ambassador.

— AP

Interior minister delays planned deportation of Congolese migrants

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has delayed the planned deportation of migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Israel after the Foreign Ministry says they may be in danger if they are returned to their home country.

In a letter to the director-general of the Population Immigration and Border Authority, Deri writes the move comes “in light of recent updates from professional sources at the Foreign Ministry, and based on their professional recommendation to delay my decision concerning ending the collective protection of nationals from the Democratic Republic of Congo because of recent developments there.”

The letter was signed in February, but was revealed today in response to an appeal by rights groups against the move.

There are estimated to be hundreds of Congolese citizens residing in Israel, who fled the DRC following violence in the country in the early 2000s.

Congolese activists demonstrate outside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on December 18, 2011, calling for the Israeli government to disregard newly elected Congolese president Joseph Kabila and support leader of opposition Etienne Tshisekedi instead. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

23 ultra-Orthodox arrested in Jerusalem anti-conscription protest

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews are blocking a main intersection in Jerusalem amid rush hour traffic ahead of the weekend to protest against mandatory military conscription.

Police say 23 people have been arrested during the demonstration at Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets near the capital’s Central Bus Station.

“Police forces are acting firmly against the rioters in order to keep roads and the light rail opened,” police say.

The Kann public broadcaster reports that the demonstration was sparked by the arrest of a 26-year-old ultra-Orthodox man who had ignored summonses from the army draft office for five years.

Top US commander in Middle East says fight against Islamic State ‘far from over’

WASHINGTON — The battle against the Islamic State extremist group is “far from over” and the jihadists remain unbroken and prepared for a resurgence despite the elimination of their physical base in Syria, a top US commander says.

“Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment — but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same,” General Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, tells Congress.

“The ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized. We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization,” he says.

— AFP

In this file photo from September 12, 2018, US Central Command head General Joseph Votel speaks at a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s military chiefs of staff in Kuwait City. (AFP Photo/Yasser Al-Zayyat)

Army position along Gaza border reportedly fired upon

An army post along the Gaza Strip is fired upon from the Palestinian side of the border, according to Israeli television.

There are no reports of injuries.

House to vote on anti-hate measure after pushback from Democrats

WASHINGTON — The House is expected to vote Thursday on a resolution “opposing hate” as Democrats try to move on from a controversy that has split the party and clouded their agenda.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced the vote at a private morning meeting of House Democrats, according to a spokeswoman.

Democrats have been in knots after comments from newly elected Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota that were seen as anti-Semitic. A Muslim-American, she has been critical of Israel.

Some Democratic lawmakers wanted a resolution that rebuked the comments, but others viewed the condemnation as unfairly singling out Omar at a time when US President Donald Trump and others have made disparaging racial comments.

A draft resolution was panned by many Democrats, and a new text was being prepared ahead of voting.

— AP

Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota sits with fellow Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee during a bill markup, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 6, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

IDF tank shells Hamas post following Gaza gunfire

An IDF tank shells a Hamas post in the northern Gaza Strip after military equipment along the border fence was fired on, the army says.

No Israeli soldiers were injured by the gunfire.

Netanyahu warns Hamas over uptick in border violence

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warns Hamas that Israel will respond harshly to any violence coming from the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu makes the remarks as he tours the security fence along the Egyptian border amid recent rising tensions with Gaza.

“Hamas should understand that any display of aggression will be met with twice as great a response from the Israeli side,” he says.

“It is better they understand this now than afterwards,” Netanyahu adds.

The premier also hails the security fence along the border with Egypt, which he has accused his chief election rival Benny Gantz of opposing when it was built, a charge the retired general has denied.

“This fence is a phenomenal success. It has completely stopped the infiltration of hundreds of thousands from Africa and the entrance to Israel of terrorists from the Sinai,” he says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the border with Egypt at the southern village of Nitzana in the Negev desert on March 7, 2019. (Jim Hollander/Pool/AFP)

Pelosi says Omar unaware of Israel criticism impact

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says freshman Democrat Ilhan Omar didn’t realize her words about Israel would sound anti-Semitic to some powerful members of Congress.

Omar’s comment that a pledge of “allegiance” to the Jewish state is expected of lawmakers sparked enough outrage to split Democrats and throw their agenda into question. Some Democrats wanted a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, while others said that would have unfairly singled out the Minnesota Democrat.

Pelosi tells reporters the resolution the House will vote on Thursday will “speak out against anti-Semitism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-white supremacy and all the forms that it takes.”

Of Omar, Pelosi says, “I do not believe she understood the full weight of her words. These words have a history and a cultural impact.”

Omar, a Somali-American, is one of two Muslim women in the House.

— AP

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi waves as she walks to a news conference on March 5, 2019, in Austin, Texas, to discuss a voting rights bill. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Police: Jerusalem roads reopened after ultra-Orthodox protest, 30 arrested

Thirty ultra-Orthodox demonstrators were arrested at a protest in Jerusalem today against the conscription of seminary students to the military.

Police say that all the demonstrators left the busy intersection at Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets, where they blocked traffic and the capital’s light rail during rush hour.

Police use a water canon against ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting in Jerusalem against the arrest of a draft-doger on March 7, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

US general says no pressure to complete Syria pullout

The top US military commander in the Middle East says he has not faced pressure to complete the pullout of US troops in Syria by a specific date.

Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command, makes the remarks in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.

“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” Votel is quoted saying by Reuters, using an acronym for the Islamic State jihadist group.

“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” he adds.

Trump’s surprise announcement in December to pull all US forces out of Syria was met with concern by some American lawmakers and among allies such as Israel, which sees the US presence as a check on Iran’s military expansion in Syria.

Hard-line cleric tapped to lead Iran’s judiciary

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A hard-line cleric once thought to be a possible successor to Iran’s supreme leader is appointed head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary today, sparking concern from rights activists over his involvement in the execution of thousands in the 1980s.

Ebrahim Raisi was named to the post in a decree by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the semi-official Fars news agency reports.

Raisi’s selection comes after he was trounced by incumbent Hassan Rouhani in the country’s 2017 presidential election. That loss, as well as other concerns, now have some analysts suggesting the move takes him out of the running to become the next supreme leader to replace Khamenei, who will turn 80 this July.

Speculation that Raisi could be named to the post also had sparked criticism from the US, which under President Donald Trump has withdrawn from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Raisi, “involved in mass executions of political prisoners, was chosen to lead #Iran’s judiciary. What a disgrace!” Robert Palladino, a deputy State Department spokesman, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “The regime makes a mockery of the legal process by allowing unfair trials and inhumane prison conditions. Iranians deserve better!”

Rumors began months ago that Khamenei would appoint Raisi, 58. He will replace Sadegh Amoli Larijani, a conservative cleric who is the brother of Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. Khamenei had appointed Larijani as the head of the country’s Expediency Council, which mediates differences between the country’s Parliament and its Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog.

Khamenei has praised Raisi, a former Iranian attorney general, in the past.

— AP

In this photo from May 16, 2017, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a 2017 presidential election rally in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Palestinian negotiator calls for boycott of new US embassy unit

The Palestinian leadership is urging the international community to boycott the newly created US embassy unit that will handle relations with Palestinians.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat issues a statement Thursday calling upon the diplomatic community “not to engage in any kind of formal relationship or collaboration” with the new Palestinian affairs unit, which will take over the responsibilities of the shuttered US consulate.

The US move to close the consulate earlier this week was the latest decision from the Trump administration to infuriate the Palestinians, who view the closure as a “downgrade” and “new assault” on the prospect of a US-brokered solution to the conflict.

The unit will grant US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a staunch supporter of the Israeli West Bank settler movement, authority over US relations with the Palestinians.

This photo from March 4, 2019, shows United States consulate building in Jerusalem. The United States has officially shuttered its consulate in Jerusalem, downgrading the status of its main diplomatic mission to the Palestinians by folding it into the US Embassy to Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

— AP

 

Frenchman convicted over deadly attack at Brussels Jewish museum

BRUSSELS — Jurors found Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche guilty of murdering four people at Brussels’ Jewish museum, the presiding judge announces. The attack was the first carried out in Europe by a Syria jihad veteran.

The 12 jurors also found Nacer Bendrer, accused of supplying him with the weapons, to be the “co-author” of the May 2014 anti-Semitic killings, the judge says following a two-month trial in Brussels.

— AFP

Balloon launched from Gaza explodes in Israel’s south

A balloon carrying an explosive device launched from the Gaza Strip explodes in the air near a community in the Eshkol Regional Council, a spokesperson for the council says.

There are no injuries or damage as a result of the explosion.

Abbas expected to tap Fatah ally as next PM — officials

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to appoint long-time ally Mohammad Shtayyeh as prime minister in the next few days after backing by his Fatah party, senior officials say.

Analysts view bringing in Shtayyeh to replace outgoing Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as part of Abbas’s efforts to further isolate his political rivals Hamas, who run the Gaza Strip.

The central committee of Fatah backed Shtayyeh to take over the post during a meeting earlier this week, the senior officials say on condition of anonymity.

The recommendation is not binding on Abbas, but he is expected to back the decision, the officials say.

Shtayyeh, born in 1958, is a long-term Abbas ally and member of the Fatah central committee.

He would replace Hamdallah, who was politically independent.

Shtayyeh has been part of a number of Palestinian negotiating teams in US-brokered talks with Israel, and is a former government minister.

He is also an academic and economics professor.

Hamdallah’s government submitted its resignation in late January, though it has continued on an interim basis.

Secularist Abbas remains the primary decision-maker and interlocutor with the international community.

— AFP

Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayeh, June 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

US urges UN to tighten restrictions on Iran over missile launches

UNITED NATIONS — The United States accuses Iran of carrying out three missile-related launches in defiance of UN resolutions and urges the Security Council to “bring back tougher international restrictions” against Tehran.

In a letter to the council seen by AFP, US acting Ambassador Jonathan Cohen warns Iran’s activities are destabilizing the entire Middle East and risk triggering an arms race.

Cohen singles out a December 1 launch of a medium-range ballistic missile and the January 15 and February 5 attempts by Iran to place satellites into orbit using space launch vehicles.

“Iran has carried out these three launches in defiance of the expressed will of the UN Security Council, and such provocations continue to destabilize the entire Middle East region,” says the letter seen by AFP.

The United States calls on the council to “join us in imposing real consequences on Iran for its flagrant defiance of the council’s demands and bring back tougher international restrictions to deter Iran’s missile program.”

There is no immediate request from the United States for a council meeting to discuss Iran and no further steps were announced in the letter.

UN Security Council Resolution 2231 — adopted just after the 2015 nuclear deal — calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Tehran insists that its missile development program is defensive and in compliance with the resolution, but the United States has repeatedly challenged that stance.

— AFP

Acting Permanent Representative of the United States Jonathan Cohen addresses the United Nations Security Council, at UN headquarters, on January 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

American hiker killed after falling into ravine in Eilat Mountains

Authorities say the body of an American tourist was discovered this morning in a ravine near a popular hiking trail in the Eilat Mountains in southern Israel.

Police began searching for the hiker last night when the 20-year-old man failed to return from his hike to Mount Shlomo. His body was airlifted from the ravine by the IDF’s search and rescue unit after a several hour operation.

Police have opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death, although no foul play is suspected. The initial indication is that the man slipped and fell down a steep rock face while walking the trail.

The IDF’s unit 669 helped police recover the body from the ravine.

Police say that the man’s family has been informed.

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Hard-line cleric tapped to lead Iran’s judiciary

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A hard-line cleric once thought to be a possible successor to Iran’s supreme leader is appointed head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary today, sparking concern from rights activists over his involvement in the execution of thousands in the 1980s.

Ebrahim Raisi was named to the post in a decree by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the semi-official Fars news agency reports.

Raisi’s selection comes after he was trounced by incumbent Hassan Rouhani in the country’s 2017 presidential election. That loss, as well as other concerns, now have some analysts suggesting the move takes him out of the running to become the next supreme leader to replace Khamenei, who will turn 80 this July.

Speculation that Raisi could be named to the post also had sparked criticism from the US, which under President Donald Trump has withdrawn from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Raisi, “involved in mass executions of political prisoners, was chosen to lead #Iran’s judiciary. What a disgrace!” Robert Palladino, a deputy State Department spokesman, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “The regime makes a mockery of the legal process by allowing unfair trials and inhumane prison conditions. Iranians deserve better!”

Rumors began months ago that Khamenei would appoint Raisi, 58. He will replace Sadegh Amoli Larijani, a conservative cleric who is the brother of Iran’s parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani. Khamenei had appointed Larijani as the head of the country’s Expediency Council, which mediates differences between the country’s Parliament and its Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog.

Khamenei has praised Raisi, a former Iranian attorney general, in the past.

— AP

In this photo from May 16, 2017, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a 2017 presidential election rally in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)