Israeli leaders cautiously optimistic as virus rates slip
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Just 421 new virus cases recorded in 24 hours as testing takes dive

TV report says ministers will introduce new restrictions in hotspots; 5 more die of COVID-19 since morning

Jerusalem residents, wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus, walk on Jaffa road in the city center of Jerusalem, August 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalem residents, wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus, walk on Jaffa road in the city center of Jerusalem, August 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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

Netanyahu to meet renegade Likud MK who reversed virus rules

Talks are underway within the ruling Likud party to avoid the ouster of a party lawmaker from the panel overseeing coronavirus restrictions, after she clashed with the government and reversed cabinet-approved lockdown measures.

According to the Ynet news site, coalition whip Miki Zohar is brokering a compromise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton tomorrow on the issue, it says.

“There is a time for war and a time for peace,” Zohar, the coalition whip, is quoted saying. “It is correct that I am trying to find a compromise between MK Shasha-Biton and the prime minister. Obviously, this is better than removing her.”

Netanyahu, Gantz at each others’ throats over protests

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz clash at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, with the premier accusing protesters against him of “trampling on democracy” while the Blue and White chief responds that people have a right to demonstrate and must be protected.

“I see an attempt to trample on democracy, there is a distortion of all the rules. Nobody restricts the demonstrations. On the contrary — they go toward them. It’s a coronavirus incubator, there are rules that are not enforced, no one restricts it and no one has even tried to restrict it,” the premier claims.

No outbreaks have been directly traced back to the protests and police have said they are strictly enforcing mask-wearing.

“These demonstrations are fueled by a media mobilization, the likes of which I don’t remember before. They are encouraged, allowed to paralyze neighborhoods and block roads, in stark contrast to everything that was accepted in the past,” Netanyahu says.

Gantz, who also serves as alternate prime minister, responds to Netanyahu, emphasizing he believes the right to demonstrate is the “lifeblood of democracy,” as well as condemning violence against protesters.

“The right to protest is the lifeblood of democracy. As a government, we have a responsibility to allow the demonstrations to take place and to protect the demonstrators, who were unfortunately attacked yesterday.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties oppose Supreme Court override bill

The ultra-Orthodox coalition parties Shas and United Torah Judaism say they won’t support an opposition-spearheaded bill that would allow the government to override the Supreme Court.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked announced Saturday night that her party would bring the proposal to the Knesset on Wednesday, calling it a “chance to stop judicial piracy.”

The idea of a clause that would allow the Knesset to keep the court from knocking down new laws backed by the right-wing has long been a top agenda item for lawmakers from Yamina, Likud and other right-wing parties, who accuse the court of judicial overreach.

While such a proposal has been bruited about in the past, it has never won the full support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or reached the Knesset for an up or down vote.

Tropical storm Isaias nears virus-hit Florida

Early bands of heavy rain from Isaias lash Florida’s east coast before dawn as authorities warily eye the approaching storm, which threaten to snarl efforts to quell surging cases of the coronavirus across the region.

Isaias weakened from a hurricane to a tropical storm late Saturday afternoon, but was still expected to bring heavy rain and flooding as it barrels toward Florida.

“Don’t be fooled by the downgrade,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned during a news conference on Saturday after the storm — pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs — spent hours roughing up the Bahamas.

Florida authorities close beaches, parks and virus testing sites, lashing signs to palm trees so they wouldn’t blow away. The governor said the state is anticipating power outages and asked residents to have a week’s supply of water, food and medicine on hand. Officials wrestle with how to prepare shelters where people can seek refuge from the storm if necessary, while safely social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

In Palm Beach County, about 150 people are in shelters, says emergency management spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda. The county has a voluntary evacuation order for those living in mobile or manufactured homes, or those who feel their home can’t withstand winds.

“We don’t anticipate many more evacuations,” she says, adding that the evacuees are physically distant from each other and are wearing masks, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Isaias is piling another burden on communities already hard-hit by other storms and sickness.

The storm’s maximum sustained winds declined steadily throughout Saturday, and were at 65 mph (100 kph) by Sunday morning, the US National Hurricane Center says in an advisory.


Education Ministry gets NIS 4.2 billion budget boost

The cabinet approves a plan that will pump NIS 4.2 billion ($1.2 billion) into the education system for the upcoming school year.

The vote is hailed by Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who says the approval “will enable a stable school year, even in the shadow of the coronavirus.”

Cabinet confirms MK Tzipi Hotovely as new ambassador to London

The cabinet unanimously votes to confirm the appointment of Settlements Minister Tzipi Hotovely as Israel’s next ambassador to the United Kingdom.

If the UK Foreign Office accepts her nomination, she will head to London in the fall.

with Raphael Ahren

Court orders Yair Netanyahu to take down tweet doxing protest leaders

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court orders Yair Netanyahu, the son of the prime minister, to take down a tweet identifying the leaders of a protest movement against his father.

The younger Netanyahu publicized the activists’ addresses and encouraged his 88,000-plus social media followers to picket their homes.

“I invite everyone to come to protest, day and night (the Supreme Court says it’s allowed), at the homes of these people who have been organizing the anarchy in the country for all of us in recent weeks,” Netanyahu tweeted on Thursday.

The court also tells Yair Netanyahu to stop harassing the activists for six months, “in any form,” according to Hebrew reports.

Epicenter of Palestinian virus outbreak shifting from Hebron to East Jerusalem

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry reports 225 new cases of the novel coronavirus and one death in the past 24 hours.

Of the new cases, 103 were confirmed in Jerusalem governorate, including 88 in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem. The center of the coronavirus outbreak among Palestinians has slowly been shifting from Hebron, the West Bank’s largest governorate, to Jerusalem.

There are still many more active cases in Hebron governorate than in Jerusalem — 4,215 in Hebron to Jerusalem’s 3,016. But infection rates in Hebron have been trending sharply downward even as Jerusalem’s infection curve rises. Only 22 cases are confirmed in Hebron governorate on Sunday.

The Gaza Strip continues to avoid a major public health crisis, with only 7 active cases remaining, according to the PA Health Ministry. All coronavirus infections to date in the Strip have been among new arrivals all already quarantined inside field hospitals established to contain the spread of the outbreak. None of the infected were exposed to individuals outside Hamas-controlled quarantine centers.

The Palestinian Authority reports 15,780 total cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with 87 deaths: one in Gaza, 3 among Jerusalem Palestinians, and 83 in the West Bank.

Aaron Boxerman

Global virus death toll surpasses 685,000

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 685,780 people since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT on Sunday.

At least 17,896,220 cases of coronavirus have been registered in 196 countries and territories. Of these, at least 10,326,000 are now considered recovered.

The tallies, using data collected by AFP from national authorities and information from the World Health Organization (WHO), probably reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections.

Many countries are testing only symptomatic or the most serious cases.

On Saturday, 5,557 new deaths and 263,110 new cases were recorded worldwide. Based on latest reports, the countries with the most new deaths were Brazil with 1,088 new deaths, followed by the United States with 1,051, and India with 853.

The United States is the worst-hit country with 154,449 deaths from 4,620,502 cases. At least 1,461,885 people have been declared recovered.

After the US, the hardest-hit countries are Brazil with 93,563 deaths from 2,707,877 cases, Mexico with 47,472 deaths from 434,193 cases, the United Kingdom with 46,193 deaths from 303,952 cases, and India with 37,364 deaths from 1,750,723 cases.

The country with the highest number of deaths compared to its population is Belgium with 85 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, followed by the United Kingdom with 68, Andorra with 67, Spain 61, Peru 59, and Italy 58.

China — excluding Hong Kong and Macau — has to date declared 84,385 cases (48 new since Saturday), including 4,634 deaths and 79,003 recoveries.

Europe overall has 210,487 deaths from 3,191,892 cases, Latin America and the Caribbean 200,212 deaths from 4,919,054 infections, and the United States and Canada 163,424 deaths from 4,737,084 cases.

Asia has recorded 63,844 deaths from 2,917,571 cases, the Middle East 27,643 deaths from 1,165,720 cases, Africa 19,930 deaths from 945,248 cases, and Oceania 240 deaths from 19,656 cases.

As a result of corrections by national authorities or late publication of data, the figures updated over the past 24 hours may not correspond exactly to the previous day’s tallies.


Defense minister approves call-up of 3,000 reservists to aid virus response

Defense Minister Benny Gantz approves the call-up of 3,000 reservists to assist in the formation of a “coronavirus command,” to coordinate the military’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This will mostly be made up of reservists from the IDF Home Front Command, his office says.

Some of the 3,000 reservists will serve in the headquarters of the coronavirus command, where they will help set up the initiative before the program is taken over by full-time staffers.

Gantz’s office says others will conduct epidemiological surveys, interviewing confirmed coronavirus carrier to determine whom else they may have infected. Some will also be sent to the coronavirus hotels being operated by the military and assist in the coordination between the national government and local authorities.

Judah Ari Gross

Hezbollah has been creating ‘electronic armies’ since 2012 — report

The Hezbollah terror group has trained thousands of students in “electronic warfare,” including the propagation of fake news, since 2012, according to The Telegraph.

It reports: “A Telegraph investigation can today reveal that Hizbollah has trained thousands of Iran-backed social media activists, helping create so-called ‘electronic armies’ across the region. This newspaper can disclose that since at least 2012, Hizbollah has been flying individuals into Lebanon for courses teaching participants how to digitally manipulate photographs, manage large numbers of fake social media accounts, make videos, avoid Facebook’s censorship, and effectively spread disinformation online.

“Students have come from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria, according to interviewees that spoke to The Telegraph on the condition of anonymity.”

Reports claim Israeli spy device found in south Lebanon

Lebanese media is publicizing photos of what it describes as an Israeli listening device found in Jezzine, in the south of the country.

The Lebanese National News Agency claims the spying device is Israeli as tensions along the border remain high following last week’s foiled Hezbollah attack on Israel.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg waited 4 months to say her cancer had returned

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is perhaps the most forthcoming member of the US Supreme Court when it comes to telling the public about her many health issues. But she waited more than four months to reveal that her cancer had returned and that she was undergoing chemotherapy.

One big difference from her past battles with cancer is that Ginsburg and the rest of the court have been out of the public eye since early March because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s when they decided to close the building except for official business, then later postponed arguments and agreed to meet by telephone.

In some ways, the court was more accessible to the public than ever with its decision to provide live audio of telephone arguments in May. But the inability to see the justices and, after arguments concluded on May 13, hear them, made what went on in the late spring and early summer even harder to read than usual.

In an institution that zealously guards the justices’ privacy, only a justice can decide when an injury or illness should be made public. And because life tenure comes with the job, it’s also up to them alone to decide when to retire.

Ginsburg, who was in and out of the hospital last week, said she intends to remain on the court, a decision that likely was influenced by the conservative nominee US President Donald Trump would put up to replace her if she were to retire.

“If there is one iron rule that the court tries to follow more than any other, it is that the justices do all that they can to protect their institution from political attacks during presidential election years when public scrutiny of government is heightened. Ginsburg may simply be trying, to the extent she can, to protect the court and herself, from becoming a campaign issue in 2020,” said Artemus Ward, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University who has written about the politics of court retirements.

Ginsburg started receiving chemotherapy in May, a time of year when the justices typically take the bench at least once a week to announce decisions, and when the public can observe them in the courtroom.


Iran records highest daily virus spike in nearly a month

Iran reports its highest single-day novel coronavirus infection count in nearly a month, warning that most of its provinces have been hit by a resurgence of the disease.

The Islamic Republic has been battling the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 since late February.

After a lull in deaths and infections from April to May, it now appears that the provinces first hit, including the holy city of Qom, are back in the same place as figures have been on the rise.

Health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari says that 2,685 more people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the country’s highest single-day count since July 8.

This raises total cases identified since late February to 309,437, she adds.

Another 208 people also died during the same period, bringing the overall toll to 17,190.


Ransomware feared as possible saboteur for November US election

US federal authorities say one of the gravest threats to the November election is a well-timed ransomware attack that could paralyze voting operations. The threat isn’t just from foreign governments, but any fortune-seeking criminal.

Ransomware attacks targeting state and local governments have been on the rise, with cyber criminals seeking quick money by seizing data and holding it hostage until they get paid. The fear is that such attacks could affect voting systems directly or even indirectly, by infecting broader government networks that include electoral databases.

Even if a ransomware attack fails to disrupt elections, it could nonetheless rattle confidence in the vote.

On the spectrum of threats from the fantastical to the more probable, experts and officials say ransomware is a particularly realistic possibility because the attacks are already so pervasive and lucrative. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued advisories to local governments, including recommendations for preventing attacks.

“From the standpoint of confidence in the system, I think it is much easier to disrupt a network and prevent it from operating than it is to change votes,” Adam Hickey, a US Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general, said in an interview.

The scenario is relatively simple: Plant malware on multiple networks that affect voter registration databases and activate it just before an election. Or target vote-reporting and tabulation systems.

The number of attacks has escalated in recent years, with targets including Texas’ transportation agency and city computers in New Orleans. A December report by cybersecurity firm Emsisoft tracked attacks against at least 966 entities that interrupted 911 services, rendered medical records inaccessible and hindered police background checks.


Virus panel head says she’ll continue to base decisions on data, not pressure

Ahead of her meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton vows to continue to make her decisions based on data, rather than government pressure.

Shasha-Biton was expected to be ousted as head of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee by her own party after she reversed many government restrictions — such as the closures of gyms, restaurants, and pools — to curb the spread of the virus, citing insufficient evidence the activities contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

She is set to meet with Netanyahu on Monday in a last-ditch bid to avoid her ouster.

“The Coronavirus Commitee holds substantive, thorough and transparent discussions for the public and its interest,” she tweets. “We listen to the government positions, to professionals, businesses, and public representatives and appraise the issue while retaining the balance between health benefits and the social and economic damage of every decision. The figures have been, and will continue to be, the cornerstone of our decision making,” she adds, referring to data on infection rates.

“There are no personal considerations,” she says. “This is how I handled the discussions until now, and so long as I hold the role, I will continue [to work] according to these values.”

Sudan welcomes Pompeo comments on ending terror listing

Sudan’s government welcomes remarks from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week that he would like to delist Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, local media reports.

Pompeo has repeatedly indicated that the State Department hopes to remove the designation, which severely impedes investment to Sudan, but disputes have arisen on a compensation package over the 1998 bombings of two US embassies.

The US top diplomat told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that legislation on a settlement should come before Congress “in the very, very near term.”

According to an English-language report by official news agency SUNA, the Sudanese transitional government on Saturday welcomed Pompeo’s statement and “promised to do its level best to meet the requirements that would help the (American) administration” take “positive action.”

Independent online news site Sudan Tribune reported the government had said in a statement that it “is ready to continue working with the US administration to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and enter into a partnership relationship that benefits both countries.”


Second tranche of stimulus payments to be distributed Tuesday and Wednesday

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis will receive their virus stimulus payments on Tuesday and Wednesday, the National Insurance Institute says.

The second round of payments will be for those who are already eligible for government handouts, including seniors.

The government began distributing the payments for families with children on Sunday. The funds for others will be distributed at a later date.

South Africa passes half a million virus cases

South Africa exceeds half a million confirmed cases of the coronavirus, even as President Cyril Ramaphosa says he sees “promising signs” that the rapid growth of cases is stabilizing and that the country’s strained health system is managing to cope in most areas.

South Africa’s caseload represents more than 50% of all reported coronavirus infections in Africa’s 54 countries. Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths.

South Africa, with a population of about 58 million, has the fifth-highest number of cases in the world, behind the US, Brazil, Russia and India, all countries with significantly higher populations, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the true toll of the pandemic worldwide is much higher than confirmed cases, due to limited testing and other reasons.

Ramaphosa, in a letter to the nation on Sunday, says that despite the high number of confirmed cases, he sees some positive developments, including that the daily increase in infections appears to be stabilizing in the provinces of the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, which is home to Johannesburg and Pretoria.

South Africa’s hospitals have been stretched to the limit but in most provinces they are succeeding in providing treatment to COVID-19 patients, he says.


Netanyahu cheers first round of stimulus payments to 1.25 million families

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Finance Minister Israel Katz and the head of the National Insurance Institute, Meir Shpiglar.

The prime minister cheers the stimulus checks for nearly all Israeli citizens, after the first round of payments began earlier in the day.

“As we promised, another 40,000 businesses today received an additional round of aid and also 99.57% of the children of Israel, who are three million children in 1,250,000 families,” says Netanyahu.

Iran’s stock market hits record high

The Tehran Stock Exchange closes at a record high, crossing 2 million points for the first time, even as US sanctions, unemployment, inflation and low oil prices batter the Iranian economy.

The exchange’s website shows it closed at 2,011,492 points, up some 50,000 points from Saturday. Government authorities also offer additional shares of state-owned companies onto the market Sunday.

The Tehran Stock Exchange has seen sharp increases this year, even as Iran struggled with one of the first serious coronavirus outbreaks outside China.

Encouraged by a government eager to privatize state-owned firms, average people now have access to the market and can trade shares, earning returns they’d never see in a savings account or a certificate of deposit.

But these rapid gains increasingly have analysts and experts worried about a growing stock market bubble, one that could be particularly dire and wipe away the earnings of the average people flooding into the market.

Even Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — beleaguered since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from his 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — has pointed to the market as a rare bright spot for the country. Iran’s rial currency has fallen to some 230,000 to 1 against the US dollar, as opposed to the 35,000 to $1 in 2015.

Founded in 1967, the Tehran Stock Exchange lists some 1,000 companies, including major firms like car manufacturer Iran Khodro. The bourse now has a market cap of more than $200 billion.


Netanyahu, virus czar set to make televised address

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and newly appointed virus czar Ronni Gamzu are set to make a televised statement about the pandemic.

It’s not immediately clear whether new restrictions will be announced.

Israeli leaders cautiously optimistic as virus rates slip

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says ministers will meet Monday to discuss new virus czar Ronni Gamzu’s plan to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal will focus on how to “cut the chain of infection,” says Netanyahu.

He also reiterates praise for government stimulus payouts, which began today.

“We are buying options for vaccines. I can’t tell you that a vaccine will be found, but the signs, today, are encouraging,” adds Netanyahu.

Yuli Edelstein, the health minister, says the number of virus cases are dropping.

“We managed to stop the rise in infections,” he says.

“It’s good, but it’s certainly not enough. The numbers are still high and worrisome,” adds Edelstein.

Gamzu directs his comments to the ultra-Orthodox community, while stressing all Israelis must keep social distancing and wear masks.

“It’s very important during this time to keep the rules. It’s very important for us to lower the infection rates…. It depends on you all,” he tells Haredi communities.

“We want to get to the holidays [in September] with all the cities [in Israel] becoming green [low infection],” he says.

Gamzu also says the government won’t be “hasty” in lifting the existing virus restrictions.

Netanyahu: Budget is ready, could be advanced tomorrow and avert elections

Netanyahu doubles down on his demand to quickly advance a one-year budget.

His coalition partner Benny Gantz is insisting on a two-year budget in accordance with the coalition agreement, raising the prospect that early elections could be called amid the stalemate.

“There is no reason this shouldn’t happen. There is no reason to condition the budget on political considerations,” says Netanyahu.

“The budget is ready. We can bring it to the cabinet tomorrow” and avoid elections, he says.

“The government doesn’t need to fall. The budget could pass tomorrow,” he adds.

“We don’t need elections, we need a budget. And we can pass it tomorrow.”

The prime minister also lashes out at the protesters against him, dismissing claims against police.

“Never have so few received such huge coverage,” or been treated with such kid gloves, says Netanyahu.

Minister: Gantz trying to include woman in all-male coronavirus cabinet

Blue and White Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata says Defense Minister Benny Gantz is trying to bring a female representative into the high-level coronavirus cabinet, following criticism of the makeup of the all-male panel.

“I believe it will be resolved this week. Gantz has suggested to Likud they include a woman in the [coronavirus] cabinet,” she says in an interview with Army Radio.

The immigration and absorption minister also predicts that Israel will see 90,000 new immigrants by the end of 2021.

TikTok must be sold or blocked in US, says Mnuchin

TikTok must either be sold or blocked in the US due to national security concerns, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says in the latest ominous US warning to the Chinese-owned app.

TikTok, he says, simply “cannot exist as it does.”

Mnuchin does not comment directly on US President Donald Trump’s threat Friday to bar the wildly popular video-sharing app.

The secretary recalls that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — which he chairs — is reviewing TikTok, which is especially popular with young audiences who create and watch its short-form videos and has an estimated one billion users worldwide.

But in one of many fronts in US-Chinese relations that have turned practically poisonous these days, US officials have said it could be a tool for Chinese intelligence. TikTok denies any such suggestion.

“I will say publicly that the entire committee agrees that TikTok cannot stay in the current format because it risks sending back information on 100 million Americans,” Mnuchin says Sunday on ABC.


Jewish Agency chair says Seth Rogen apologized for Israel remarks

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog has spoken to actor Seth Rogen after his controversial remarks on Israel, Channel 12 reports. Herzog, according to the network, says Rogen apologized for his comments during a Zoom conversation.

Rogen, however, insisted that the conversation not be recorded, the report says.

Rogen, who is Jewish, last week sparked controversy after saying the Jewish state “doesn’t make sense.”

US task force leader says ‘extraordinarily widespread’ pandemic in new phase

White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx says widespread coronavirus infections in urban and rural America mark a “new phase” for the pandemic, as she doubled down on calls to wear face masks and observe social distancing measures.

Birx, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday morning, says “What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread.”

The United States has the world’s biggest number of cases at 4.6 million, or one-quarter of the total, and 154,361 deaths. Birx said mitigation efforts across the west and the south are beginning to work, but warned that people need to take the virus seriously and employ significant safety precautions when cases first begin to tick up.


Syria condemns deal between Kurds and US oil firm as ‘theft’

Syria condemns an agreement between Kurdish-led forces in the country’s northeast and a US oil company, describing it as “theft” and an “affront to national sovereignty.”

The foreign ministry denounced “an agreement signed by the SDF militia and a US oil company to steal Syrian oil… supported by the US administration,” in a statement quoted by the official SANA news agency.

The SDF is the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led paramilitary alliance that backs a semi-autonomous administration in northeastern Syria and controls the country’s biggest oilfields.

Senior US officials have confirmed an agreement to “modernize” the fields, without naming the US company or providing other details.

The Syrian foreign ministry’s statement decries “an agreement between… thieves who steal and thieves who buy.”

It also decried “the hostile US position towards Syria, the theft of the Syrian people’s riches, and its hindrance of the state’s reconstruction efforts.”


Saudi Arabia concludes downsized hajj amid pandemic

Muslim pilgrims circle at Islam’s holiest site, along socially distanced paths, on Sunday, in the final ritual of the hajj, the smallest in modern history, as Saudi authorities sought to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

Only up to 10,000 Muslims took part in the hajj, a far cry from the 2.5 million who took part in the five-day annual pilgrimage last year.

Masked pilgrims threw pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan in Mina, close to the holy city of Mecca, on the final day of hajj, state media reports.

Instead of gathering the pebbles themselves as in past years, they were handed them bagged and sterilized by hajj authorities, to protect against the novel coronavirus.

Pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Mecca later Sunday to perform a final “tawaf,” or circling of the Kaaba — a cubic structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.


Netanyahu, top Arab lawmaker spar over anti-PM protests

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singles out Joint List leader Ayman Odeh’s support for the protests against him, in an attempt to discredit the demonstration movement.

“This is Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List that supports terrorists and who attended a Hamas conference last month, at the left-wing protest in Jerusalem yesterday,” tweets Netanyahu, referring to Odeh’s participation in a conference aimed at reconciling warring Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. “The media is supporting the left-wing protests which are breaking records each day for violence and incitement to the murder of the prime minister.”

Netanyahu shares a photo of the leader of the predominantly Arab list at a demonstration in Jerusalem, outside his residence.

Odeh hits back: “There are a million unemployed Israelis and a total failure in preventing the spread of the virus. As usual, the only thing Netanyahu has to offer is hatred of the Arabs. It doesn’t work anymore. The public doesn’t buy it.”

Treasury warns lack of state budget could hurt credit rating — TV

Treasury officials are concerned Israel’s international credit rating could be downgraded if a state budget is not approved by the end of the month, according to Channel 12.

Finance Ministry Accountant General Rony Hizkiyahu is quoted as warning: “We must be careful. There is no government stability, and there is no budget after three elections. As a result, when the credit rating agencies arrive, this is an indicator for a negative outlook to reduce the rating.”

Netanyahu and Gantz are deadlocked on the budget, with the prime minister insisting on a one-year budget, while the defense minister is demanding a two-year plan, as set out in the coalition agreement. If Israel does not approve a budget by late August, the country could face another election.

Just 421 new virus cases found in past 24 hours

The Health Ministry logs just 421 new COVID-19 cases between Saturday night and Sunday night, though testing also takes a steep dive, likely contributing to the decline.

That figure is the lowest daily tally in weeks, with most days last week seeing around 2,000 new cases per day.

According to the ministry, there are 26,386 active cases in the country. It says 342 people are in serious condition, 98 of them on ventilators. Another 141 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

The ministry says 7,793 tests were conducted on Saturday, 8.4 percent of which came back positive. Recent weeks have seen daily testing rates hover around 30,000.

Five more people have died of the virus since this morning, bringing the toll since the start of the pandemic to 536.

60% of COVID-19 deaths in July were over 80 years old — TV

Sixty percent of the people who died of the coronavirus in July were over the age of 80, according to Channel 12.

The vast majority of the fatalities were over 70, it says.

According to Health Ministry data, 191 people died of COVID-19 in July.


Ministers will impose new restrictions in virus hotspots — report

The government will impose new restrictions in cities with high COVID-19 infection rates, including closing stores and reducing gatherings, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The restrictions will be applied to cities and towns flagged as “red” hotspots, with those classified as “orange” with moderate-to-high infection rates also possibly seeing some new limitations.

The “red” areas include Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Taibe, Elad, Qalansawe, Zemer, and Ein Mahel, Kan says.

The “orange” areas include parts of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Petach Tikva.

The coronavirus cabinet will convene tomorrow to discuss whether to introduce new measures targeting these areas.

Likud MK denies she was invited to meet Netanyahu to prevent her ouster

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton denies she was invited to a meeting on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of an effort to avoid her ouster as the chair of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

She makes the statement as supporters gather outside her home.

After coalition whip Miki Zohar last week informed the head of a parliamentary panel that she would be removed from her post after overturning the government’s coronavirus-related restrictions, a report said earlier Sunday that a compromise was being sought to avoid her ouster.

Shasha-Biton, who has led the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee since June, butted heads with Netanyahu by reversing a number of cabinet decisions to restrict businesses during the pandemic, including the closures of restaurants, gyms, and pools.

Rocket sirens sound in Gaza border communities

Incoming rocket alert sirens sound in communities near the Gaza Strip, sending tens of thousands of residents to bomb shelters.

The military says it is checking what triggered the alarms.

The sirens are heard in the town of Sderot, as well as small communities in the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

Judah Ari Gross

Rocket fired at Israel from Gaza, is intercepted by Iron Dome

One rocket fired from the Gaza Strip is intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the Israel Defense Forces says.

The attack triggered sirens in the town of Sderot, as well as small communities in the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

Judah Ari Gross

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Israeli leaders cautiously optimistic as virus rates slip

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says ministers will meet Monday to discuss new virus czar Ronni Gamzu’s plan to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal will focus on how to “cut the chain of infection,” says Netanyahu.

He also reiterates praise for government stimulus payouts, which began today.

“We are buying options for vaccines. I can’t tell you that a vaccine will be found, but the signs, today, are encouraging,” adds Netanyahu.

Yuli Edelstein, the health minister, says the number of virus cases are dropping.

“We managed to stop the rise in infections,” he says.

“It’s good, but it’s certainly not enough. The numbers are still high and worrisome,” adds Edelstein.

Gamzu directs his comments to the ultra-Orthodox community, while stressing all Israelis must keep social distancing and wear masks.

“It’s very important during this time to keep the rules. It’s very important for us to lower the infection rates…. It depends on you all,” he tells Haredi communities.

“We want to get to the holidays [in September] with all the cities [in Israel] becoming green [low infection],” he says.

Gamzu also says the government won’t be “hasty” in lifting the existing virus restrictions.