The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.
The Defense Ministry announces it has begun work on a new barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip.
Construction began Thursday on the barrier, which the ministry says is some six meters (19.5 feet) high and will stretch for 65 kilometers (40 miles) along the border from Kerem Shalom in the south to the new sea barrier in the north of the Strip meant to guard against infiltration from the Mediterranean.
The new fence will be constructed along the path of an underground barrier being built to block cross-border attack tunnels dug from the Palestinian territory, which emerged as a threat during the 2014 Gaza war.
“Over the weekend we began building the above-ground barrier along the Gaza border. The barrier will prevent terrorists from Gaza from penetrating into our territory on the ground,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
הקמת המכשול העילי יוצא לדרך: מינהלת גבולות ותפר החלה בחמישי האחרון את הקמתו של המכשול העילי בגבול רצועת עזה. המכשול יוקם על תוואי המכשול התת-קרקעי, יהיה באורך 65 ק"מ ויתנשא לגובה של כ-6 מטר. pic.twitter.com/ZBuiL9heNi
— משרד הביטחון (@MoDIsrael) February 3, 2019
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has appealed for the end of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, saying the “cries of these children and their parents rise up” to God.
He makes the appeal at the Vatican an hour before his scheduled departure on a three-day trip to the United Arab Emirates, which is a key member of the Saudi-led coalition at war with Yemen’s Iran-aligned rebels. The conflict has driven Yemen to the brink of famine and caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Francis urges faithful in St. Peter’s Square to join him in prayer, saying “these are hungry children” with no medicine, and “are in danger of dying.” Noting that many can’t reach food aid areas, he appeals to the involved parties and the international community to urgently ensure that agreements are reached and food distributed.
Francis is expected in the United Arab Emirates later today, where he will become the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula.
Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman calls for Israel to again carry out targeted killings of Palestinian terror leaders, after video is released showing a sniper attack on an Israeli officer along the Gaza border.
“Everyone knows who in Gaza gave the order to fire at the officer. We must stop capitulating to terror and return to a policy of targeted killings,” Liberman, who heads the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, writes on Twitter.
His tweet comes after a news outlet affiliated with Lebanon’s Hezbollah released video from January of an Israeli officer being shot in the helmet by a Palestinian sniper in Gaza. Palestinian Islamic Jihad confirmed to Al-Mayadeen that its military wing was being the attack.
Liberman resigned as defense minister in November in protest of a ceasefire agreement to end a major flareup between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.
A Hamas delegation led by the terror group’s chief Ismail Haniyeh left the Gaza Strip for Cairo on Sunday, the organization’s official website states.
The delegation will meet with Egyptian officials to discuss “a number of political matters, developments related to the Palestinian issue and bilateral relations,” the website adds.
A delegation from Palestinian Islamic Jihad headed by its leader Ziad al-Nakhala also arrived in Cairo today for talks with Egyptian officials, according to the Islamic Jihad-linked Palestine Today.
— Adam Rasgon
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency is reporting that a fire in the country’s space research center has killed three scientists.
The Sunday report quotes Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi as saying that three researchers have died “because of a fire in one of the buildings of the Space Research Center.”
Jahromi did not elaborate in the report.
Iran plans to launch a satellite into orbit despite US criticism that such launches benefit its ballistic missile program.
In January, the country launched a satellite, but authorities said it failed to reach the “necessary speed” in the third stage of its launch.
Iran’s young space program has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit over the past decade, and in 2013 launched a monkey into space.
RIO DE JANEIRO – A young senator who is an ally of Brazil’s new pro-Israel president has become the first Jewish person to preside over Brazil’s senate.
Davi Alcolumbre, 41, is a native of Brazil’s northernmost state of Amapa. He has been a politician for 18 years but is little known by many in mainstream Jewish circles in Latin America’s largest nation.
“We are very proud to have a great Jew and friend of Israel in the leadership of this legislative house. On behalf of the people and government of Israel, I wish you Hatzlacha and Mazal Tov,” Israeli ambassador Yossi Shelley writes on social media, using the Hebrew words for success and good luck.
Alcolumbre’s election, held Saturday evening, was supported by Brazilian senator Flavio Bolsonaro, who is the son of President Jair Bolsonaro. He beat Renan Calheiros, who was seeking his fifth Senate presidency.
“Alcolumbre has been a traditional partner of Jewish-Zionist causes in the National Congress. Now we have for the first time in history a 100 percent Jewish president in the Senate,” Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, tells JTA.
Estimado Senador Davi Alcolumbre Direto de Eretz Israel envio meus sinceros cumprimentos pela espetacular vitória para…
DAMASCUS, Syria — A Syrian military official says the US-led coalition has attacked an army artillery position in eastern Syria, wounding two soldiers and destroying a cannon.
Spokesman for the US-led coalition Col. Sean Ryan says Sunday the partner forces acted in self-defense after coming under fire from the western side of the Euphrates River. Ryan says an investigation is underway.
US-led coalition forces, with their local Kurdish-led partners, are battling the remnants of Islamic State extremist group on the eastern banks of the Euphrates, while government troops and allied forces are now positioned on the other side after dislodging IS from there.
Syria’s state news agency SANA quotes the unnamed military official as saying the attack late Saturday was followed by a foiled incursion by IS militants.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs releases a report it says details over 100 cases of ties between Palestinian terror organizations and groups that promote the boycotts, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
The report, titled “Terrorists in Suits,” accuses Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine of placing a number of their operatives in pro-BDS NGOs, including some who have been imprisoned on murder charges. The ministry says the NGOs mentioned in the report have received financial support from European countries.
“Terrorist groups and the anti-Israel boycott campaign have united in their goal of wiping Israel off the map. Terrorist groups view boycotts as a complementary tactic to terror attacks,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan says at a press conference.
“I urge all governments and financial institutions to investigate the activities of these BDS organizations, and immediately end all funding and support that they provide to them,” he adds.
US President Donald Trump will relocate some American forces being withdrawn from Syria to a base in Iraq, where he says they will be able to monitor Iran.
In an interview with CBS to be aired Sunday, Trump defends his decision to pull US troops out of Syria and says the withdrawal is happening gradually as “we have to protect Israel.”
Trump’s abrupt announcement in December he would pull all American soldiers from Syria set of alarm bells in Israel, which has being carrying out a campaign to prevent an Iranian military presence there.
Asked why he would keep troops in Iraq despite his criticism of the 2003 US invasion of the country, Trump says, “We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it.”
“And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he adds.
Trump insists the base is meant only to “watch” Iran, not to carry out a strike against it.
“All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up,” he says.
The US president also addresses his public dispute with intelligence chiefs last week after they testified Iran was in technical compliance with the 2015 international accord meant to limit its nuclear program.
“When I look at Iran, I look at Iran as a nation that has caused tremendous problems,” he says. “So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is – if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel.”
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency is reporting that a court has handed down prison sentences for 13 protesters arrested during the August 2017 demonstrations over economic hardships.
The Sunday report says that Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced eight of the defendants to six months and the others to one year in prison for “acting against national security by attending illegal gatherings.”
IRNA’s report says that five of protesters are women.
Iran is in the grip of an economic crisis and has seen sporadic protests in recent months as officials try to downplay the effects of the restored US sanctions on Tehran
WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump reiterates in comments broadcast Sunday that a US military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” as international pressure ramps up on embattled head of state Nicolas Maduro to step down.
Asked in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” what could lead the United States to use military force in the crisis-wracked country, the president declined to give a specific answer.
“But certainly it’s something that’s on the — it’s an option,” he said.
The United States recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president on January 23, and is leading an international campaign to drive Maduro from office.
Guaido says the constitution entitles him to serve as interim head of state because Maduro’s re-election last May was invalid, his strongest opponents having been barred from running.
Four major European nations — Britain, France, Germany and Spain — have said they will likewise recognize Guaido unless Maduro calls new presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.
CAIRO — Egyptian lawmakers put forward constitutional changes that would allow President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to extend his rule beyond 2022, two of them say.
The bill submitted to speaker Ali Abdel Aal calls for several amendments to the constitution, including on the duration of presidential mandates currently limited to two four-year terms.
The lawmakers who put forward the amendments hope to extend the length of mandates to two six-year terms, which they say would allow Sissi to run for the presidency two more times after his second term expires in 2022.
That could see the former military chief ruling over Egypt until 2034.
The parliament’s website says speaker Abdel Aal had received a “request from a fifth of the elected representatives (120 deputies out of the total 596) to amend certain articles of the constitution.”
That number fulfills the quorum required for such a request.
Sissi was elected for the first time in 2014, after ousting his predecessor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. The former army head was re-elected in 2018 with 97 percent of the vote.
The vast majority of the current parliament supports the Sissi government, with only around 10 lawmakers making up the opposition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears on the debut of his Likud party’s new TV program on Facebook, where he takes aim at the media and boasts about Israel’s economic and security achievements during his tenure.
“Whoever the media praises is bad for Likud and usually whoever it crucifies is good for Likud,” he says.
Asked about his political challengers, Netanyahu again insists former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz is left-wing.
“Gantz can only be chosen [as prime minister] with a blocking force of left-wing and Arab parties,” he claims.
Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon takes fellow envoys from the United Nations to see a cross-border attack tunnel from Lebanon dug by Hezbollah.
“The struggle against Hezbollah is also a diplomatic struggle. Hezbollah has established a state in southern Lebanon and built several tunnels to harm Israeli residents,” Danon says, according to a statement from his office.
“This is an opportunity for the international community to call on the Lebanese government to renounce Hezbollah, instead of giving it portfolios in the government, and demand the Security Council recognize it as a terrorist organization immediately,” he adds.
Israel launched an operation in December to locate and destroy tunnels dug from Lebanon that it says Hezbollah planned to use in order to smuggle its fighters into Israel in a future war. The army announced the end of the operation last month.
During the anti-tunnel campaign, the UN Security Council held a meeting on condemning Hezbollah and branding it a terror group, but did not take any action.
Former army chief rabbi Rafi Peretz is selected to be the new leader of the national-religious Jewish Home party.
Having won the support of Jewish Home members, Peretz’s appointment will be brought before the party’s central committee tomorrow, when it will also choose its candidates ahead of Knesset elections on April 9.
The pro-settlement party is facing the prospect that it will fail to enter the Knesset, as it hovers around the minimum electoral threshold in polls, following ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s decision to jump ship and set up the New Right.
Bennett praises Jewish Home’s selection of Peretz and wishes the party good luck in the elections, as does Prime Minister Netanyahu.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu calls for the Jewish Home to work to unite with the National Union and Otzma Leyisrael in order to prevent a loss of votes for the right-wing bloc, which could bring about the establishment of a left-wing government,” he says in a statement, referring to a pair of far-right parties.
National Union head Bezalel Smotrich calls on Peretz to agree to run on a joint electoral list, as the parties did in the 2015 elections.
Prime Minister Netanyahu again goes after Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar, repeating claims that Sa’ar had been planning an internal party putsch to unseat the premier.
In an interview broadcast on Facebook, Netanyahu said he was informed by “more than two or three people in Likud” that they had been approached by Sa’ar and asked that they recommend he be charged with forming a new government following elections.
“I didn’t make this up. I don’t think this trick will succeed because… it is against the will of the voter,” Netanyahu said.
The prime minister has previously made the same claim, which was first reported by the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily.
Following the interview, sources close to Netanyahu say the premier is working to prevent Sa’ar from leading Likud’s electoral list.
Sa’ar, a popular former minister who left politics in 2014 before announcing his return in 2017, strongly denies Netanyahu’s allegation.
“Unfortunately, the prime minister chose two days before the [Likud] primaries to try and recycle the same false plot that he first mentioned a few months ago,” Sa’ar says in a statement.
“The goal is clear: an attempt to hurt me in the primaries,” he continues. “Likud members are smart and know well that this has no basis. On the eve of critical elections for Likud and the state I’ll act as the responsible adult. I won’t be dragged into an internal war.”
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Pope Francis is greeted by Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on his arrival to the Arabian Peninsula.
A young boy and girl in traditional Emirati dress hand the pontiff flowers after landing Sunday night. The two leaders then walk past an honor guard, all with traditional Arabic daggers at their waists.
Pope Francis and Sheikh Mohammed smile and speak to each other as they walk through the airport terminal.
The pope also meets a host of Cabinet ministers in a greeting line, as well as local Catholic and Muslim officials.
ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday says his government maintained “low-level” contact through its spy agency with the Syrian regime despite being one of its most fervent critics.
“The foreign policy is being conducted with Syria at low-level,” Erdogan tells the state-run TRT television in an interview.
Erdogan’s government fell out with Damascus after its deadly crackdown on popular dissent in March 2011, and ruled out any contact with the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Erdogan’s comments are the first time Turkey has confirmed direct low-level talks with Damascus.
“Even if it’s your enemy, you will not entirely break ties in case you might need them,” he says.