May says no British royals, ministers at World Cup in Russia
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Netanyahus to be grilled again in Bezeq corruption case — report

Investigators requesting permission to summon prime minister and his wife for fresh round of questioning after ex-staffer turned state’s witness

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the opening ceremony of the inauguration of the new emergency ward at the Barzilay hospital, in Ashkelon, Israel on February 20, 2018. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the opening ceremony of the inauguration of the new emergency ward at the Barzilay hospital, in Ashkelon, Israel on February 20, 2018. (Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they unfolded.

Remand extended for Arab Israeli man who injured 4 in car-ramming

The Arab Israeli man who injured four people in a car-ramming attack in the northern city of Acre last week is remanded into custody for another week, according to a police statement.

The 26-year-old suspect from Shfaram will remain in custody until March 21.

A statement from police says the March 4 attack that injured two soldiers, a border guard and a civilian was nationalistically motivated.

The suspect’s attorney has denied his client is a terrorist, or that his actions were nationalistically motivated.

The court has placed a gag order on all other details pertaining to the case.

Turkey ramps up assault on Kurdish enclave in Syria

Turkey is turning up the heat on Syria’s Afrin, launching deadly strikes on Damascus loyalists deployed around the Kurdish enclave and closing in on its main city.

The development, which could redraw the map of northern Syria, comes as Russian-backed regime forces pounded shrinking rebel pockets in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The violence in both enclaves came as the foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia, the two major foreign players in a conflict entering its eighth year tomorrow, met in Moscow.

A Turkish presidency source said Afrin’s encirclement “will have been completed by the evening,” retracting an earlier statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan predicting its fall last night.

Afrin city lies in the heart of a Kurdish-majority enclave in northern Syria which neighbouring Turkey sees as a threat and against which it launched a deadly ground and air offensive on January 20.

Before the retraction, Erdogan had told supporters in Ankara Wednesday he hoped “Afrin will, God willing, have completely fallen by the evening.”


UK calls for Security Council meeting over poisoned ex-Russian spy

Britain calls for a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the investigation into the chemical agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter.

The UK Foreign Office says in a tweet that it called for an “urgent” meeting to update council members on the investigation into the March 4 attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to announce a range of economic and diplomatic measures against Russia in response to the assault on the pair. The father and daughter remain in critical condition in a hospital in Salisbury, southwestern England.

May is set to update the House of Commons on the matter later today.

— AP

UNRWA in urgent search for cash at global gathering tomorrow

Global powers will gather in Rome tomorrow to discuss the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze tens of millions of dollars in funding.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl tells AFP.

A major funding drive launched by UNRWA after the US freeze has raised little new money and diplomats are not optimistic about getting major pledges in the Italian capital.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has so far committed only $60 million to the agency this year, down from $360 million in 2017. He has frozen two planned payments worth more than $100 million — one for UNRWA’s central budget and one for food aid.

UN officials want European countries to step in to fill part of the gap but are especially looking at Gulf Arab countries.

Yesterday, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund released $30 million for UNRWA to keep the agency’s food aid program afloat.


Parents of slain Jewish DNC staffer Seth Rich sue Fox News

The parents of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich are suing Fox News for knowingly spreading a false account of their son’s death in 2016.

Police say Rich was killed during a botched robbery, but conspiracy theorists have circulated rumors that he was killed because he was a source for Wikileaks.

Several days after Rich’s death, WikiLeaks released a collection of DNC emails that US intelligence officials now say was related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

According to the lawsuit, Joel and Mary Rich say Fox News investigative reporter Malia Zimmerman and Fox News commentator Ed Butowsky reached out to them under false pretenses to support their story that their son leaked the emails.

“No parent should ever have to live through what we have been forced to endure,” the lawsuit says according to CNN. “The pain and anguish that comes from seeing your murdered son’s life and legacy treated as a mere political football is beyond comprehension.”

Fox removed the story from its website a week after it was published, admitting “it was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all of our reporting.” That forced Fox News’ most high-profile host, Sean Hannity, to back away from aggressively pushing the story on the air.

UK expelling 23 Russian diplomats over spy spat

Britain is expelling 23 Russian diplomats after the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy — the single biggest such expulsion since the Cold War.

Prime Minister Theresa May tells the House of Commons that Russia has expressed “disdain” for Britain’s wish for an explanation into the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. She says that Russia’s actions “represent an unlawful use of force.”

May said the Russian diplomats have a week to leave Britain.

She also announces a range of economic and diplomatic measures, including a decision to cancel all high-level bilateral contacts with Russia and to ask the royal family not attend the soccer World Cup in Russia.

Russia has denied responsibility in the March 4 attack on the Skripals.

— AP

May says no British royals, ministers at World Cup in Russia

British royals and government ministers will not attend the World Cup in Russia, Prime Minister Theresa May says as she blamed Moscow for the nerve agent attack on a former double agent.

“There will be no attendance by ministers — or indeed members of the royal family — at this summer’s World Cup in Russia,” May tells lawmakers, as she announced the suspension of high level bilateral ties between London and Moscow.


South Africa ruling party joins Apartheid Week, slams ‘increased Israeli racism’

South Africa’s ruling party endorses Israel Apartheid Week, accusing the Jewish state of “increased targeting of Palestinian children” and “increased Israeli racism against Africans.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, the African National Congress says it will join the 14th annual event “as part of our ongoing work and commitment to the heroic people of Palestine.”

The party calls the detention of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi an “extreme and unacceptable abuse of child rights, human rights and international law,” and says it was “not[ing] with great concern the increased Israeli racism against Africans.”

COGAT says long delays in services for Palestinians due to manpower shortage

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians says staffing shortages will delay the issuing of permits for Palestinians looking to leave the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In a Facebook post, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, formally known as coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), says the delays will also affect the issuing and renewal of employment permits and import licenses.

A COGAT official says the staffing shortages stem from a 2015 wage dispute with the Finance Ministry.

Syria’s Assad vows to continue fight against ‘terrorism’

Syria’s President Bashar Assad says his country’s war on terrorism will continue as long as there is “a single terrorist” on Syrian territories.

Assad’s comments were published on the official presidency Telegram channel. Assad says the war on terrorism will go side by side with his efforts to stand up to “western scenarios that aim to undermine the country’s unity and sovereignty.”

The Syrian conflict enters its eighth year this week. What started as protests against the Syrian government in March 2011 progressed into an armed conflict that drew regional and international powers as well as foreign militant fighters. The conflict has torn the country apart.

The Syrian government calls all opposition groups “terrorists” and accuses the US, European countries, Gulf countries and Turkey of seeking to divide Syria. Russia and Iran have been strong backers of Assad, helping him in his bid to regain control of territories.

— AP

Comptroller identifies flaws in Gaza war, but gives IDF passing grade

A state comptroller review of the Israeli army’s legal handling of the 2014 Gaza war identifies a number of flaws — notably a lack of law training for officers — but largely gave the military a passing grade, noting its extensive efforts to avoid civilian casualties.

The comptroller document also identifies significant problems with the army’s Hannibal Protocol, a special order that gives troops in the field looser rules of engagement in the event a soldier is kidnapped, notably that within even the upper echelons of the military there was confusion over its exact meaning. However, the issues are largely moot as the army replaced the Hannibal Protocol with a new, supposedly clearer order in June 2016.

Over the past three and a half years since the 2014 war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, the State Comptroller’s Office worked with officials throughout the Israel Defense Forces, as well as in the security cabinet, Prime Minister’s Office and Justice Ministry, in order to prepare the document.

In a rare move, the 169-page report was published in both Hebrew and English.

In it, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira calls for the IDF and National Security Council to take more seriously the implications of international law and civilian casualties on military campaigns.

The army says it welcomes the findings of the report and will “earnestly study its findings and work to address the shortcomings.”

— Judah Ari Gross

Russian embassy in London condemns UK ‘hostile action’

Russia’s embassy in London on condemns as “hostile action” a series of punitive measures announced by Britain in reaction to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent.

“We consider this hostile action as totally unacceptable, unjustified and shortsighted. All the responsibility for the deterioration of the Russia-UK relationship lies with the current political leadership of Britain,” the embassy says in a statement.


Azerbaijan releases Israeli jailed for traveling with bullets

A court in Azerbaijan releases an Israeli tourist who was caught early this year with bullets in his suitcase.

According to reports in Hebrew-language media, Eliyahu Avraham will be fined for the infraction.

Avraham has been in custody in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku since early January.

The Foreign Ministry says Israeli diplomats are continuing efforts to secure the release of Dalia Haddad, an Israeli woman being in held Baku since February after bullets were found in her luggage.

Iran says Tillerson firing shows US ‘determined’ to quit nuclear deal

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s sacking shows that Washington is set on quitting the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, Iran’s deputy foreign minister says.

“The United States is determined to leave the nuclear deal, and changes at the State Department were made with that goal in mind — or at least it was one of the reasons,” Abbas Araqchi says in comments carried by state new agency ISNA.


US students stage school walkouts to protest gun violence

Young people in the US are walking out of school to demand action on gun violence in what activists hope will be the biggest demonstration of student activism yet in response to last month’s massacre in Florida.

More than 3,000 walkouts were planned across the US and around the world, organizers said. Students were urged to leave class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim in the February 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Thousands of students gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, holding colorful signs and cheering in support of gun control. The students chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. The NRA has got to go!” and “What do we want? Gun control! When do we want it? Now!”

— AP

UK warns Britons of harassment risk in Russia amid spy row

Britain is warning its citizens currently in or traveling to Russia in the coming weeks of a risk of “anti-British sentiment or harassment,” amid heightened tensions over a spy attack.

The updated travel advice from the Foreign Office comes just hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May announced sanctions against Moscow following the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal.

“Due to heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time,” the ministry says.

“If you’re currently in Russia or due to travel in the coming weeks, you’re advised to remain vigilant, avoid any protests or demonstrations and avoid commenting publically on political developments.


Hamas claims to know who attempted to assassinate Palestinian PM

A Hamas official says the terror group know the identities of perpetrators of the attempted assassination of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza yesterday.

“The interior ministry in Gaza has the names and other information of those linked to the bombing of the prime minister’s convoy,” Gaza’s Deputy Interior Minister Tawfiq Abu Naim tells local media outlets.

Though he does not reveal the identity of the suspects, Abu Naim points the finger at Israel, saying the “occupation is the one beneficiary” of the attempted hit.

World War II British bomb removed from Italian Adriatic town

Italian bomb experts have moved to the sea for safe detonation a 500-pound (225-kilo) British bomb from World War II, accidentally dug up in an Adriatic town.

Some 23,000 people in Fano were evacuated last night as a precaution while the bomb was transported to sea. The bomb was accidentally dug up during excavation work.

Italian army bomb experts say that the bomb will be detonated at sea after a 144-hour wait, the maximum time required to see if the device explodes on its own if its time-delayed trigger was accidentally activated during the excavation.

The army says the Italian navy took the bomb out to an area in the Adriatic outside navigation routes.

The accidental unearthing of Allied bombs is an occasional event in Italy.

— AP

UN seeks $540 million for Palestinian aid, mostly for Gaza

The United Nations says about $540 million is needed for humanitarian relief in the Palestinian territories in 2018.

Jamie McGoldrick, the top UN humanitarian coordinator, says that 75 percent of that sum is for Gaza, where “a man-made tragedy is unfolding daily.”

Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas terrorist group took over the territory in 2007. The closure — along with Hamas’s conflicts with Israel and a power struggle with the group’s bitter rival, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — has devastated the economy.

Half the sum is to support emergency projects by UNRWA, the main UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, after Washington slashed its funding this year. The rest is to fund food, water, health, sanitation, shelter and education projects.

— AP

4 dead, thousands injured in Iran fire festival celebrations

Four people have been killed and thousands injured during celebrations of Iran’s annual fire festival ahead of the Persian new year, an official tells state TV.

“Two people died on Tuesday night, in addition to two others killed in recent days,” says Hassan Nouri, deputy director of the country’s emergency services.

Nouri says some 3,450 people had been injured in this year’s festivities.

The fire festival, an ancient Zoroastrian tradition, predates Islam and is celebrated on the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar, which ends this year on March 20.

The tradition remains popular among Iranians, who light and jump over bonfires while singing songs to mark the arrival of spring.

At this year’s celebrations, young people set off fireworks as others lobbed gas-filled bottles into fires, causing explosions.


Bombings kill 25 civilians in Syria’s Ghouta

Bombardment by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia killed 25 civilians, among them three children, in the embattled rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, a monitor says.

“At least 25 civilians including three children were killed on Wednesday, most of them in regime air strikes and others in Russian raids on an area controlled by Faylaq al-Rahman,” a rebel group, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says.


UK chief rabbi decries Islamophobia in response to ‘punish a Muslim day’

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis decries the “horrific” calls for a national day of violence against Muslims next month.

In a tweet, Mirvis says the anonymous calls for violence are “a sobering reminder of the depravity of Islamophobia. The reaction of the Jewish community is unequivocal: threats of violence and prejudice directed at British Muslims undermine everything it means to be British and are totally abhorrent.”

Over the weekend, residents of Bradford, Leicester, London, Cardiff and Sheffield received notes declaring April 3 to be “Punish a Muslim Day.” The anonymous notes said points would be awarded for various acts of violence, from 25

Moscow says will retaliate soon to Britain’s expulsion of diplomats

Moscow calls Britain’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy a sign that London was choosing confrontation with Russia, adding that retaliation would follow shortly.

“The British government made a choice for confrontation with Russia,” the Russian foreign ministry says in a statement. “Our response measures will not be tardy.”


Knesset bans Zoabi for a week after branding IDF soldiers ‘murderers’

Hanin Zoabi, a firebrand lawmaker from the Joint (Arab) List, is suspended from the Knesset for a week after calling IDF soldiers “murderers.”

Last month, Zoabi was removed from the parliament for making the remark during an Education committee meeting.

In a statement, the Knesset Ethics Committee says Zoabi will be banned for the first week of the parliament’s summer session that will start late April.

UN chief says use of nerve agent in Britain ‘unacceptable’

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the use of a nerve agent in an attack in Britain on a former Russian spy was “unacceptable.”

“The use of nerve agents as a weapon under any circumstances is unacceptable and its use by a state would constitute a serious violation of international law,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq tells reporters.

The comments come before an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called at Britain’s request to discuss the attack that left ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in critical condition.


Incoming German FM says he entered politics because of Auschwitz

Germany’s new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, announces that he will travel to Israel soon. “I entered politics because of Auschwitz,” he says in his inaugural speech at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Maas, until recently Germany’s justice minister, has been scheduled to attend an international conference on fighting anti-Semitism next week in Jerusalem, though organizers say his office has not yet confirmed his attendance.

In his speech, he also reiterates Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security.

— Raphael Ahren

Iran inks $740m oil deal post-nuke sanctions

Iran’s state-run oil company has signed a $740 million agreement with a Russian-Iranian consortium to develop two oil fields near the Iraqi border.

Under the agreement, there will be a 48,000-barrel daily production of crude for a 10-year span in oil fields in Aban and West Paidar in the southwest near the border with Iraq. Iran currently produces 36,000 barrels of crude in both fields.

The consortium includes the Russian state-controlled Zarubezhneft Oil Co. and the Iranian private Dana Energy Co.

This is the second energy contract with foreign companies following the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Last year Iran signed a $5 billion agreement with France’s Total SA and a Chinese oil company to develop its massive offshore natural gas field.

— AP

New Polish holiday to honor Poles who saved Jews during Holocaust

Polish lawmakers have approved a new national holiday honoring the Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The Senate voted Wednesday on the bill, initiated by President Andrzej, to make March 24 a national day of remembrance. It was approved 58-14 in the Senate with three abstentions, and now only requires Duda’s signature to become law.

The bill pays tribute to Poles who showed courage and compassion and were “faithful to the highest ethical values.”

The new holiday follows passage of new legislation that criminalizes falsely attributing the Holocaust crimes of Nazi Germany to Poland. That step and the holiday are seen as a larger effort by nationalist authorities to stress Polish heroism during World War II.

— AP

Trump picks Kudlow for top economic post

US President Donald Trump plans to name CNBC senior contributor Larry Kudlow as his top economic adviser.

Two administration officials say Trump had offered the job to Kudlow. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations.

Kudlow will replace Gary Cohn, who announced last week he would step down as director of the National Economic Council after he opposed the president’s plans for new trade tariffs.

Trump told reporters on yesterday he was “looking at Larry Kudlow very strongly.”

Kudlow is CNBC’s senior contributor and was previously the host of CNBC’s prime-time “The Kudlow Report.” He served in the Office of Management and Budget during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

— AP

Netanyahus to be questioned again in Bezeq corruption case — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are reportedly expected to face another round of police questioning in the ongoing corruption investigation into the Bezeq telecom company.

Police have requested permission to re-question the Netanyahus from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Hadashot news reports.

The prime minister was questioned by anti-corruption investigators last month in the so-called Case 4000.

According to the report, Netanyahu will be questioned on the testimony his ex-media adviser Nir Hefetz gave police earlier this month in exchange for full immunity from prosecution.

It said police want the questioning to take place before the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover that begins at the end of the month.

The case suspicions that the controlling shareholder of the telecommunications giant Bezeq, Shaul Elovitch, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant positive coverage to Netanyahu and his family in exchange for the prime minister advancing regulations benefiting Elovitch.

Bomb kills four, wounds 20 in eastern Pakistan

Pakistani police say a bomb has exploded near a police checkpoint killing three police and a bystander and wounding 20 others near the eastern city of Lahore.

Haider Ashraf, Lahore police chief, says that an initial investigation suggests the bomb was planted near the checkpoint close to a religious group’s main congregation place in Raiwind near Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.

Ashraf says many of the wounded were police and three were hospitalized in critical condition. Other wounded included members of the Islamic preaching group known as Tablighi Jamaat.

The main country’s Taliban group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility, saying it was a suicide attack.

Lahore and its surroundings have seen many bomb and suicide attacks in recent years.

— AP

Netanyahu ‘very impressed’ with incoming US Secretary of State Pompeo

In his first official comment on Mike Pompeo’s appointment as US Secretary of State, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has been “very impressed by his abilities and his experience.”

Pompeo is currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“I believe that also in the position of secretary of state we will work together very well,” Netanyahu says.

— Raphael Ahren

Vatican astronomy official hails Stephan Hawking

The head of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory has hailed Stephen Hawking as a scientist who gave a “human face” to astronomy.

The world-famous British theoretical physicist passed away earlier today at the age of 76.

Observatory director the Rev. Guy Consolmagno says that the observatory mourned Hawking’s death. He called him a “scientist of admirable intuition, who knew even more extraordinarily to give a human face to cosmology and to astronomy.”

Hawking was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences since 1986.

Consolmagno, who like Pope Francis is a Jesuit, tells SIR, the news agency of the Italian Bishops Conference, that Hawking had studied at Cambridge with a priest who had worked at the Vatican observatory, and that the two scientists had remained good friends for life.

— AP

Netanyahu slams media again after reports of expected police grilling

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slams reports of his upcoming police interrogation in the Bezeq corruption investigation, again accusing the media of waging a witch hunt against him.

“What a surprise! Less than a day after Prime Minister Netanyahu successfully solved the coalition crisis, there is another leak in the media from the investigations, to make sure the subject did not get off the headlines for even one day,” he says in a statement.

Yesterday, leaders from Netanyahu’s governing coalition reached a last-minute compromise over an ultra-Orthodox bill that threatened to bring down the government and prompt early elections.

UN Palestinian agency only has enough funds to last until May

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) only has enough funds to keep schools and medical services open until May, its commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl tells AFP.

Krahenbuhl labels it the agency’s worst ever financial crisis and launched a major funding drive, turning the front page of its website into a plea for donations.

Tomorrow, global powers will gather in Rome to discuss the future of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which faces an unprecedented crisis after the US froze tens of millions of dollars in funding.

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May says no British royals, ministers at World Cup in Russia

British royals and government ministers will not attend the World Cup in Russia, Prime Minister Theresa May says as she blamed Moscow for the nerve agent attack on a former double agent.

“There will be no attendance by ministers — or indeed members of the royal family — at this summer’s World Cup in Russia,” May tells lawmakers, as she announced the suspension of high level bilateral ties between London and Moscow.