The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.
Jerusalem mayor defends taxing churches; only businesses, not houses of worship
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is defending a move to freeze church assets until they pay millions in back taxes to the city.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday closed its doors until further notice as church leaders angrily retaliated against what they see as a “systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy Land.
Part of that is the recent decision by the Jerusalem Municipality to freeze churches’ assets until they cough up millions of shekels in what the city claims are unpaid taxes.
“Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the places of worship of all churches are exempt from municipal taxes and that is the way it will stay,” Barkat tweeted.
“But does it sound logical that to anyone that commercial properties like hotels, halls and businesses be exempt only because they belong to the churches?”
“Why should the Mamila hotel pay taxes and the Notre Dame hotel, which is just opposite it, be exempt?” he asks.
Barkat says the churches owed some NIS 650 million in back taxes
“I’m not prepared for Jerusalem’s residents to have to shoulder these huge sums,” he says.
Pope calls for immediate halt to Syria violence
Pope Francis is calling called for an immediate end to violence in Syria to allow aid deliveries, especially in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta which has been hit by regime bombardment.
“This February has been one of the most violent (periods) in seven years of conflict,” he says during Angelus prayers. “All this is inhuman. One cannot fight evil with another evil.”
“I therefore issue an urgent appeal for an immediate halt to violence to allow access to humanitarian aid — food and medicines — and the evacuation of the wounded and sick.
New airstrikes hit Eastern Ghouta on Saturday raising the civilian death toll from seven days of intense bombardment to over 500 including more than 120 children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
The UN Security Council unanimously demanded a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. But the proposal will not apply to “individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated” with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
North Korea says willing to talk to US
North Korea is “very willing” to hold talks with the United States, its delegation to the Winter Olympics closing ceremony said Sunday, according to Seoul’s presidential Blue House.
In a meeting with the South’s President Moon Jae-in, the North’s delegation “agreed that inter-Korea talks and North-US relations should improve together,” the Blue House says in a statement.
Pyongyang has frequently said it is willing to talk without preconditions, but Washington says it must first take concrete steps towards denuclearization.
At closing ceremony Pyeongchang hands off Winter Games to Beijing
At the closing ceremony, the Olympic flag has been passed from the mayor of Pyeongchang, South Korea, to the acting Beijing mayor. That signifies the transfer of responsibility for Winter Games to China.
Beijing will host the Winter Games in 2022 after having staged the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In between, Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Games.
Ivanka Trump shares VIP box with North Korea general at Olympic ceremony
A blacklisted North Korean general and the daughter of US President Donald Trump are attending the Winter Olympics closing ceremony together Sunday, in the final piece of the Games-led diplomacy that has dominated headlines from Pyeongchang.
Brief footage of the VIP enclosure at the arena shows South Korean President Moon Jae-in shaking hands first with Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and soon afterwards with North Korean General Kim Yong Chol — who reportedly expressed willingness to talk to Washington.
There was no indication of any interaction between Ivanka, who was placed next to Moon’s wife, and Kim, who was in the row behind her — just two seats away from US General Vincent Brooks, who commands Washington’s forces in the South.
Palestinian convicted of killing Michal Halimi sentenced to life in prison
A Palestinian who was convicted of the murder of his pregnant Israeli lover “because she was a Jew” is sentenced to life in prison.
Nablus resident Muhammad Harouf was initially believed to have killed Michal Halimi in a domestic dispute, but the charge sheet was later amended to reflect the killing was for “nationalistic reasons.”
The Tel Aviv District court gave Harouf the sentence today after he had confessed and signed a plea deal.
Ministers delay debate on church land bill as Church of the Holy Sepulchre shut
The Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation is delaying a debate on a bill allowing the state to appropriate lands in Israel sold by churches to anonymous buyers since the start of the decade.
This follows protests from the churches including the shuttering of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The advancement of the legislation, which was proposed by Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria and is backed by the Justice Ministry, is being fiercely opposed by church leaders which today closed its doors until further notice as church leaders angrily retaliated against what they see as a “systematic campaign” by Israel to harm the Christian community in the Holy Land.
— Sue Surkes
Two more suspects arrested in construction company bribery case
Police today arrest two more people in an international bribery case involving tens of millions of dollars allegedly paid by a major Israeli construction company to African government officials over many years.
Police did not name the two, but they are expected to appear before a court later in the day to have their remand extended.
The case involves Shikun & Binui, one of Israel’s largest construction and infrastructure companies, which has many projects in Israel and around the world.
Five senior executives arrested last week are suspected of making the illicit payments to support construction projects in unnamed countries in Africa.
Another suspect questioned in Bezeq fraud case
Police say they have detained and questioned another suspect in the Bezeq fraud case that has roiled the country.
Police will bring the suspect for a remand hearing later in the day. His name is barred from publication.
The case has seen two of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close associates arrested and one has turned state’s witness. Netanyahu is expected to be questioned in the coming days.
In the probe, dubbed Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of furthering a deal under which Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed coverage of Netanyahu and his family on Walla, in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch.
Netanyahu was acting communications minister at the time.
In wake of arrests, Elovitch family resigns from Bezeq board
Shaul Elovitch and his son Or, who have been arrested in the Bezeq fraud probe, have resigned from the telecom company, Hebrew media reports say.
The company’s directors are meeting to discuss the probe and received the resignations. The directors did not discuss replacing company CEO Stella Handler, who is also under arrest
In the probe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is is suspected of furthering a deal under which Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed coverage of Netanyahu and his family on Walla, in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch.
Elovitch owns a stake in Bezeq via a pyramidal company structure: His firm Eurocom Communications Ltd. controls Internet Gold-Golden Lines Ltd. which in turns controls B Communications Ltd. B Communications holds a 26 percent stake in Bezeq, and the rest of Bezeq, 74%, is held by the public via shares traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
Justice minister said to delay annexation bill until summer
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked says she is delaying a controversial bill that would annex parts of the West Bank until the summer, Channel 10 reports.
Shaked says this is being done at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu earlier said he was talking to the Americans about annexation plans, but was forced to issue a hurried retraction after the White House vehemently denied this.
Navy opens fire on Gaza fishermen, Palestinians say 1 killed
A naval gunboat has opened fire on a Gaza fishing boat with three people inside, reportedly killing one person, Palestinian sources say.
The IDF says it is aware of the reports and is investigating.
The navy routinely fires warning shots at boats that stray out of the limited fishing zone, imposed as part of Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The blockade is aimed at ensuring that Hamas not import weapons or material for building tunnels or fortifications.
Ministers approve bill that would prevent Palestinians appealing directly to High Court
A ministerial committee has approved a bill that will prevent Palestinians in the West Bank appealing directly to the Supreme Court.
Instead, according to the bill sponsored by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, they will have to go through lower level Israeli courts first. They will only then be able to appeal to the High Court.
Palestinians have directly appealed to the High Court in many cases, particularly with regard to settlements constructed on private Palestinian land.
Supporters of the move say it puts the legal standing of the West Bank on a footing with the rest of the country, which has to follow the same procedures.
Army confirms killing of Palestinian in fishing boat, two arrested
The IDF is confirming a report that Israeli Navy soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian sailor off the coast of the Gaza Strip after his ship left the designated fishing zone.
Two other Palestinian suspects are under arrest and being interrogated, according to the military.
“The suspicious ship left the fishing zone off the northern Gaza Strip, with three suspects on it. In response, the IDF troops conducted the arrest protocol, which included calls [to stop], warning shots in the air and shots at the boat itself,” the army says.
“As a result of the gunfire, one of the suspects was seriously injured and later died of his wounds,” the army says.
The military says it is investigating the incident.
— Judah Ari Gross
Netanyahu to be questioned by police on Friday
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be questioned again by police on Friday, Hadashot news reports.
Police intend to question the prime minister over his role in the Bezeq probe and the submarine scandal, the report says.
Netanyahu had asked to delay the questioning until after he returns from a visit to the US, but police refused, it says.
In the Bezeq probe, known as case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of furthering a deal under which Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed coverage of Netanyahu and his family on Walla, in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch.
The submarine probe, known as case 3000, involves suspicions that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry.
Two of Netanyahu’s personal lawyers have been detained in the case.
Campaigning for Egypt’s presidential vote underway
Campaigning is now underway in Egypt’s presidential elections, a two-candidate vote that’s virtually certain to be won by the incumbent, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The campaigning began Saturday and ends March 23.
El-Sissi is challenged by an obscure politician who entered the race in the eleventh hour to save the president and his government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election. A string of potentially serious challengers have been arrested or intimidated out of the race.
Hundreds of billboard advertisements in support of the incumbent have over the weekend have been mounted alongside existing ones on the streets of Cairo, almost all bearing the image of a smiling Sissi, with slogans focusing on the economy and security.
Campaign banners for the challenger, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who is an ardent Sissi supporter, are conspicuously absent.
Psychiatric institutions to strike after doctor attacked
Psychiatric hospitals and clinics across the country will shut their doors for two hours on Tuesday in a protest strike.
The move comes after a patient attacked a doctor at the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center in the center of the country.
They will be closed from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Jordan cabinet reshuffles amid continued economic downturn
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has approved a cabinet reshuffle, replacing ministers in key domestic portfolios such as interior, labor and the economy at a time of continued economic downturn.
The monarch has final say on key policies, while frequent cabinet personnel changes are seen as a way of deflecting growing frustration among Jordanians with rising prices and unemployment.
Jordan is struggling with a heavy debt burden and is expected by international lenders to stick to an economic reform program, such as subsidy cuts. Western allies view Jordan’s stability as key to fighting Islamic extremism, and the U.S. recently pledged more than $6 billion in aid through 2022.
Prime Minister Hani Mulki remains in his post.
New ministers were appointed Sunday for key portfolios, among them economy, interior, labor and water.
Police ask to hold another suspect in Bezeq affair
Police this evening asked a court to hold Eli Kamir, an adviser to Bezeq majority share holder Shaul Elovitch, on suspicion of involvement in the burgeoning corruption scandal.
It’s been a tough day for Kamir, who was released earlier in the day after being questioned in a separate case in which a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family is suspected of promoting a deal to give a judge the post of attorney general if she agreed to halt an investigation into Netanyahu’s wife Sara.
Upon being released he was promptly rearrested. In the Bezeq case police want to know what Kamir did to justify his $40,000 monthly retainer, Hadashot news reports.
In the Bezeq probe, also known as Case 4000, Netanyahu is suspected of furthering a deal under which Shaul Elovitch, owner of the Walla news site and the controlling shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, swayed coverage of Netanyahu and his family on Walla, in exchange for the Communications Ministry enacting policies potentially worth hundreds of millions of shekels for Elovitch.
Government approves appointment of new ambassador to Jordan
The government approves the appointment of a new ambassador to Jordan, Amir Weissbrod, weeks after Jerusalem and Amman agreed to end a diplomatic standoff over the shooting deaths of two Jordanians by an Israeli security guard.
Weissbrod is a career diplomat who currently heads the Middle East Bureau at the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Political Research. A fluent Arabic speaker, Weissbrod served as first secretary in Israel’s Jordanian embassy between 2001 and 2004. Previously, he also served in Israel’s Liaison Bureau in Morocco.
In the July incident, Israel said the guard opened fire in self-defense when under attack.
But Israel angered Jordan by giving the guard a hero’s welcome and in response Jordan refused to allow the ambassador back.
Egypt freezes assets of leading government critic
Egypt freezes the assets of leading government critic Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, arrested earlier this month over alleged links to exiled members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the prosecution says.
His February 14 arrest came after he joined a call for a boycott of a presidential election next month that the incumbent, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, is expected to win easily after most rivals were sidelined or withdrew.
Abul Fotouh was detained shortly after arriving from London, where he gave interviews in which he was critical of the Egyptian government.
The public prosecutor’s office says it had decided to “sequester the assets of the Muslim Brotherhood leader (Abul Fotouh) and other people who have been placed on terrorist lists.”
It says an ongoing judicial probe had shown Abul Fotouh’s funds were being “used to carry out terrorist activities.”
Egyptian mediators in Gaza press Palestinians to reconcile
A team of Egyptian officials is in the Gaza Strip to renew efforts to push for reconciliation between the rival Fatah and Hamas factions.
Two Egyptian intelligence officials and a diplomat arrived in Gaza today, along with several government ministers from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.
The Hamas terror group seized control of Gaza from Fatah forces in 2007.
In November, Hamas handed over control of Gaza’s border crossings to the Palestinian Authority. It was the first tangible concession in years of Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks. But negotiations have bogged down since then.
A delegation of Hamas leaders has been in Egypt since February 9 in what is believed to be a stepped up Egyptian pressure campaign on the group.
— with AP
Israeli woman killed in New Jersey car accident
A 27-year-old Israeli woman has been killed in a car accident in New Jersey, Heberew media reports say.
The woman, from Holon near Tel Aviv, was apparently killed in a hit and run accident on Saturday. The Israeli consulate in New York is helping to return her body home to Israel
Private Baptist college denies coach candidate wasn’t hired over ‘Jewish blood’
Louisiana College, a private Baptist college, denies accusations that its president refused to hire one of its alumni as a football coach due to the candidate’s Jewish background.
Joshua Bonadona filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the college and its president, Rick Brewer.
The lawsuit alleges that Bonadona applied for a job as defensive back coach and was interviewed in May by Brewer and head coach Justin Charles. Charles later told Bonadona that Brewer would not approve his hiring due to what Brewer called his “Jewish blood,” the Associated Press reports.
Bonadona was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity while he attended Louisiana College. He was a kicker on the school’s football team, and often led the team’s pre-game “Christian devotional,” according to the lawsuit.
Court extends remand of Bezeq probe suspect Eli Kamir
A Tel Aviv court is extending the remand of Bezeq probe suspect Eli Kamir by five days.
Kamir was arrested this morning, immediately after being released from detention in another investigation.
Police reportedly want to know what Kamir, an adviser to Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch, did to warrant his unusually large $40,000 per month retainer.
Investigation finds F-16 shot down due to pilot error
An IDF investigation finds that the IAF F-16 fighter jet that was shot down by Syrian air defense apparently failed to take proper evasive action.
The fighters were involved on a raid in Syria targeting an Iranian operations base, after the Iranians flew a drone into Israel that was shot down by an Israeli helicopter.
The Israeli jets were targeted with a salvo of Russian-made Syrian anti-aircraft missiles, one of which exploded near the F-16, hitting it with shrapnel.
The investigation finds that the missile was able to hit the Israeli jet due to the pilot and navigator making a professional mistake and failing to take sufficient evasive actions.
However, the investigation also finds that the crew acted correctly when they decided to eject from the stricken plane.
The pilot was seriously injured and the navigator suffered minor injuries.
Report indicates collusion between judge, investigator in Bezeq corruption probe
Channel 10 news has obtained a copy of a WhatsApp chat that appears to show the judge in the Bezeq corruption probe deciding together with an investigator on holding suspects, even before their hearings.
In the chat, an investigator from the Israel Securities Authority tells Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz that he intends to request the judge hold some of the suspects in the Bezeq probe for a few more days, while another can “be released tomorrow.”
“Try and act surprised,” he writes.
“I’m practicing my surprised face,” she responds.
In another chat he writes: “Stella (Handler) and Iris (Elovitch), we will tomorrow ask for a few more days.”
“The will request three days, but you can definitely, but definitely give two days,” he says.
“You continue to reveal everything to me and I will have to act really really surprised,” she responds.
All this takes place before the remand hearing, where the suspects are supposed to be able to make their case before the judge decides.
A courts response said this was part of the normal coordination between the judge, who has long been involved in the case and an investigator.
The ISA had no immediate comment.
California Democratic Party isn’t backing Dianne Feinstein
US Senator Dianne Feinstein fails to win the official endorsement of the California Democratic Party, as she seeks her fifth term in Washington, but her supporters say it won’t hurt her with a broader swath of voters.
Party activists were more eager to back her primary challenger, state senate leader Kevin de Leon, who is crafting himself as a fresh face with stronger progressive credentials. However, he too fails to earn the 60 percent support he needed to win the endorsement.
That means neither candidate will get the party’s seal of approval or extra campaign cash leading into the June primary. The decision came from more than 3,000 activists gathered for the party’s annual convention this weekend, an event aimed at generating enthusiasm for the midterm elections.
For Feinstein, it is the first time she has failed to win the party’s backing since her first successful US Senate campaign in 1994. But she also has never faced a credible primary challenger. This time around, there is no Republican running in the contest, meaning a showdown between de Leon and Feinstein was likely from the start.
Justice minister, chief justice investigating judge in Bezeq probe
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Esther Haut are both reviewing a Channel 10 report that appears to reveal collusion between the judge in the Bezeq probe and investigators, Ynet reports.
A judicial source tells the Ynet news site that the messages exchanged between Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz and the investigator are “inappropriate and could undermine the faith of the public in the judicial system.”
Judge removed from hearing on Bezeq probe, in wake of damning report
The president of the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court is ordering the judge handling the Bezeq corruption probe not be allowed to preside over proceedings tomorrow.
Judge Eitan Orenstein makes the call, after Channel 10 reveals a transcript of a chat between an investigator from the Israel Securities Authority and Judge Ronit Poznansky-Katz.
In it, he says that he intends to request the judge hold some of the suspects in the Bezeq probe for a few more days, while another can “be released tomorrow.”
“Try and act surprised,” he writes.
“I’m practicing my surprised face,” she responds.
Securities Authority to urgently investigate Bezeq probe collusion
The Israel Securities Authority says it will undertake an urgent investigation into allegations that its head investigator in the Bezeq probe is colluding with the presiding judge.
“It appears that this is an unacceptable and incorrect incident and the Authority will hold an urgent inquest into the matter,” it says in a statement,” adding that “the investigators of the Securities Authority work day and night to defend the public and investors.”
The incident will be thoroughly investigated and the authorities will be updated with transparency,” it says.
IDF to impose closure on West Bank for Purim
The IDF decides to impose a closure on the West Bank for the duration of the Purim holiday.
The IDF says crossings into the Gaza Strip will also be closed.
The move follows a review of the security situation and depends on approval from the government.
Purim starts Wednesday evening in most of the country, and Thursday evening in Jerusalem.
Imposing a closer on the Palestinian areas is standard practice during Israeli festivals and holidays.
— Judah Ari Gross