PA ‘encouraged’ by Gantz remarks on possible West Bank pullback
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Hezbollah leader calls for Iran to arm Lebanon for confrontation with Israel

Nasrallah proposes importing military hardware from Islamic republic, pledges to support Tehran if US declares war

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks on June 29, 2018. (YouTube screenshot)
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks on June 29, 2018. (YouTube screenshot)

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

Zarif says Israel’s Syria strikes on agenda for Russia-Turkey-Iran summit

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tells the Russia Today news outlet that Israeli strikes on Syria would be on the agenda at top level meetings with Russian officials next month.

Zarif tells RT’s Arabic-language site the trilateral meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on February 14 will also review the withdrawal of US forces from Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Russia a week later for talks with Putin on Iranian efforts to establish a military presence in Syria.

Police arrest Jerusalem man in connection to 1993 murder

A Jerusalem man police suspect is connected to a rape and murder in the capital over 25 years ago has been arrested, according to reports.

The Jerusalem District Court remanded the 64-year-old suspect in custody for 7 days. The details of the murder case from 1993 were placed under gag order by the judge.

The man was reportedly arrested after investigators reexamined evidence from the case using new DNA analysis techniques.

Last month, police arrested 42-year-old Jerusalem resident Daniel Nachmani for the rape and murder of teenager Noa Eyal in 1993. According to reports, police made the arrest after re-testing the DNA evidence found at the murder scene.

Lebanon names first female Arab minister in charge of security

Lebanon’s new interior minister has taken office, becoming the country and the Arab world’s first female official in charge of powerful security agencies.

Raya El Hassan takes over as a part of a new government named after nearly nine months of deadlock. She is one of four women in the 30-member Cabinet, a historic record for female political representation in Lebanon.

El Hassan says she is “assuming the challenge” of the ministry in charge of implementing the law and serving citizens. She will be in charge of multiple, often competing security agencies, and of maintaining stability where until recently the country has grappled with militant groups and limited spillover from the war next door in Syria.

El Hassan in 2009 also became the region’s first female finance minister.

— AP

Body of Israeli tourist found near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe

The body of an Israeli tourist who apparently drowned in a lake near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe has been recovered by local authorities.

According to Zimbabwe’s Pindula news, the body was recovered from the Victoria Falls gorges near a popular swimming spot called the Boiling Point.

The ministry of Foreign Affairs says the man’s family is being notified and the Israeli consulate in Zimbabwe is arranging for his body to be returned to Israel for burial.

Top Iraqi cleric rejects Trump’s statements on US troops

Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric has expressed his criticism of President Donald Trump’s recent statement that US troops should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on neighboring Iran.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is the latest Iraqi official to criticize Trump’s remarks made to US media in which he said US troops are needed in Iraq so that America can “watch Iran.’

Al-Sistani says Iraq rejects serving as a launching pad to harm any other country. He spoke on Wednesday, during a meeting with UN Iraq envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the cleric’s base in the city of Najaf.

He says Iraq aspires to have good and balanced relations with all neighboring countries, without interference in its internal affairs.

Both Iraq’s president and prime minister have hit back at Trump’s statements.

— AP

PA ‘encouraged’ by Gantz remarks on possible West Bank pullback

The spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spokesman welcomes remarks made by Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, who raised the possibility of an Israeli pullback from the West Bank.

“It is encouraging if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Nabil Abu Rudeinah tells journalists in Ramallah.

But he says they needed more details about Gantz’s policies.

“We don’t know him yet, we heard about him. As President Abbas keeps saying all that we need is an Israeli government that believes in peace.”

Earlier, Gantz told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that Israel 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had been “approved by the Israeli government and implemented by the army and settlers in a painful but good way.

“(One should) learn from it and apply it to other places,” the ex- IDF chief said.

Gantz did not explicitly mention the West Bank in his remarks and refrained from outlining conditions for any pullback from the West Bank.

His comments drew criticism from Netanyahu and other right-wing lawmakers who accused Gantz of being “leftist.”

US to purchase Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel

The US army says it will buy the Iron Dome missile defense system from Israel to “fulfill its short terms needs,” according to a statement from the military.

The statement says the aerial defense system in use by Israel since 2011 has “proven effective in combat” and will be deployed to protect American soldiers abroad.

The army says it will procure a “limited number” of batteries to “fill its short-term needs for an Indirect Fire Protection Capability.”

Netanyahu said to claim victory in Likud primary despite rival Sa’ar placing high

Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claim victory in the Likud primaries, despite the relatively high placing of rival Gideon Sa’ar who he actively worked to prevent reach a high slot.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is very pleased with the expected results of the primaries,” they say. “Netanyahu did not want Gideon Sa’ar in first place – and succeeded.”

Sa’ar, the former no. 2 of the ruling Likud party, is poised to take the fourth or fifth slot on the party’s Knesset slate after returning to politics from a four-year hiatus.

A day before the vote, Netanyahu put out a video in which he rehashed claims that Sa’ar was working to oust him from power and sources close to the premier said at the time that he was working hard to prevent Sa’ar from emerging at the top of the list.

“Netanyahu defined three goals,” the same sources say on Wednesday, “A high-quality list, that Gideon Sa’ar will not lead the list, and that his proposal for the reserved spots will be accepted by a large majority.”

“All these goals have been successfully achieved,” the sources add.

Netanyahu has sought approval of a proposal to allow him to appoint any candidate he likes to to the 21st, 26th and 36th spots, in a move that could allow him to merge the Likud slate with a smaller party without getting separate permission from the Central Committee.

— Raoul Wootliff

Abbas pledges to continue security cooperation with Israel despite US aid cuts

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is pledging to continue security coordination with Israel, despite recent US funding cuts to Palestinian security forces and years of impasse in the peace process.

Abbas tells a gathering of Palestinian and Israeli activists on Wednesday that his government has counter-terrorism agreements with nearly 100 countries, including Israel.

He says the West Bank government has a “joint agreement to fight terrorism” with Israel and “will not violate it” — because if it does, “nothing will remain.”

He adds that he hopes that a party committed to peace would succeed in the upcoming Israeli elections.

The US cut all aid to the Palestinian Authority, including $61 million in security assistance, when an anti-terrorism law took effect last week. The forces are considered crucial for Palestinian and Israeli safety.

— AP

Pompeo: US will still lead fight against IS despite withdrawal

The United States still plans to lead a global fight against the Islamic State movement despite its withdrawal from Syria, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assures allies at a summit in Washington.

“America will continue to lead in giving those who would destroy us no quarter,” Pompeo tells a 79-nation conference, referring to the battle against the Islamic State group.

The conference comes amid fears that the impending US exit could imperil gains that have swept IS from more than 99 percent of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria.

— Agencies

Lebanese Parliament speaker: Israeli oil exploration violating maritime border

The speaker of the Lebanese parliament says Israel’s oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean is breaching Lebanon’s territorial waters, according to reports.

Nabih Berri tells lawmakers that Israel has “outsourced and exploited a block adjacent to Lebanon’s southern maritime border,” according to Lebanon’s Naharnet news site.

He says the move “represents an attack on Lebanese sovereignty and it target[s] against our oil wealth and [territorial] waters.”

Berri tells colleagues that “we cannot remain silent over this issue,” and vows to raise the Israeli moves with the visiting Italian prime minister later this week.

Ths US has sought to mediate the oil and gas dispute between the two neighbors — which are technically still at war — who both claim the energy reserves off the coasts of Lebanon and Israel.

Edelstein, Katz, Sa’ar take top spots in Likud primary

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Transportation Minister Israel Katz and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar take the top spots on Likud’s slate after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to the final results of the ruling primary elections.

Netanyahu views Sa’ar as a potential replacement as party leader and had lobbied party members hard to push him down the list.

The Likud party has a strong lead in polls and is expected to win around 30 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the April 9 elections. With Netanyahu facing a series of corruption charges, the primaries have taken on added significance as an indicator of his potential successor within the party.

Testimony of Trump ex-lawyer Cohen postponed

Closed-door congressional testimony planned this week by US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen will be postponed until February 28, says House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.

Cohen was expected to provide details of his work for Trump — including crimes that Cohen has been convicted for — to the committee on Friday.

But Schiff says in a statement that the testimony has been put off “in the interest of the investigation.”

It was not clear which investigation his comment referred to. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is examining Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow, a probe that increasingly menaces the White House.

The House Intelligence Committee is conducting its own examination of Trump’s links to Russia.

Cohen, the president’s former right-hand man and “fixer” at the Trump Organization, the Trump umbrella company, pleaded guilty in December to multiple charges related to work he performed for the president, and pledged to cooperate with investigators. He was sentenced on charges of fraud, tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions, and lying to Congress in previous testimony.

— AFP

Police say wave of ransom texts a ‘sextortion’ scam from abroad

Police say they are investigating a wave of ransom text messages sent by foreign hackers that are threatening to release sexually compromising information about the recipients unless they pay a fee in Bitcoin.

A number of people filed complaints today over the texts from hackers who claimed to have access to all of the data on the phone.

An initial investigation by the Lahav 433 cyber unit found that the hackers originate from a foreign country, and they did not have access to the phones or recipients’ data, the statement says. It said that any personal material included in the ransom texts had been taken from public websites or previous hacks.

IMF approves $2 billion loan payment for Egypt

The International Monetary Fund is lauding Egypt’s robust growth and acknowledged progress in stabilizing its economy, instilling market confidence and cutting debt.

The IMF says it approved a $2 billion loan payment to Egypt, the latest in the country’s three-year aid program.

Egypt has now received about $10 billion since the government secured a three-year $12 billion loan in 2016 and launched an austerity program that included subsidy cuts.

The previous loan portion was approved in July last year but this fourth review of Egypt’s ambitious economic reform program had been awaiting board approval since October.

Egypt’s economy is still recovering from a 2011 popular uprising and years of political instability.

— AP

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein dies from sudden heart failure at 67

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has passed away suddenly this afternoon at the age of 67, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

The American-Israeli rabbi reportedly died from sudden heart failure. His funeral will be held in Jerusalem tomorrow.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein poses for a picture near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem on May 13, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eckstein was an author, philanthropist and activist who served on the boards of various Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Agency, Jewish Agency and anti-Defamation league.

He brought in over $1 billion in donations for Israel, mostly from evangelical Christians, since founding the IFCJ in 1983.

Aid convoy headed to Syrian refugees stranded near Jordan border

The United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are dispatching more than 100 trucks of humanitarian aid from Damascus to Syrians stranded near the border with Jordan.

The convoy is described in a statement by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as the largest to reach more than 40,000 residents of the Rukban camp. It’s carrying food, medicine and educational materials.

The distribution is expected to take seven days and involve more than 140 Red Crescent volunteers. The UN humanitarian chief urged the convoy to go through without delay because of deteriorating conditions.

The last aid delivery to the isolated camp was sent in November, nearly 10 months after the previous batch.

— AP

PM ‘very pleased’ with Likud primary results, launches fresh attack on Gantz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is “very, very pleased” with the results of the Likud primaries, which has yielded a list of “strong and impressive” candidates.

In a video uploaded to social media, Netanyahu also praises Likud members for “voting according to my recommendations.”

Netanyahu views former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar as a potential replacement and had lobbied party members hard to push him down the list. Sa’ar finished fourth behind Netanyahu.

In his statement, Netanyahu also hits out at Israel Resilience party leader Benny Gantz for raising the possibility of an Israeli pullback from the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz at a ceremony in honor of incoming IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot (not seen) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The real trouble is that [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas is also pleased, because today Gantz said he would carry out a second disengagement from the West Bank, and Abbas just wished him luck in the elections,” Netanyahu says.

“We have to stop this together… the reality of the elections is this: it’s either a left-wing government under Gantz, or a Likud government under my leadership.”

Earlier, Gantz told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had been “approved by the Israeli government and implemented by the army and settlers in a painful but good way.”

“(One should) learn from it and apply it to other places,” the ex- IDF chief said.

Gantz did not explicitly mention the West Bank in his remarks and refrained from outlining conditions for any pullback from the territory.

Afterwards, Abbas’s spokesman cautiously welcomed Gantz’s “encouraging” remarks.

UN: Islamic State ‘not defeated,’ responsible for most attacks in Iraq and Syria

A new UN report says international terrorist groups carried out more attacks in Iraq and Syria in the last six months of 2018 than in any other country, and Islamic State extremists were primarily to blame.

UN experts said in the report circulated Wednesday that IS and its affiliates “continue to pose the main and best-resourced international terrorist threat, while al-Qaeda remains resilient.”

They say IS “has not yet been defeated” in Syria — contrary to US President Donald Trump’s declaration of victory over the militant group in December and announcement that all 2,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out of Syria.

The experts say IS jihadists remain under “intense military pressure” in their stronghold in eastern Syria, but have “shown a determination to resist and the capability to counter-attack.”

— AP

Rocket fired from Gaza explodes inside Strip — reports

A rocket fired from northern Gaza toward Israel failed to clear the border and landed inside the coastal strip, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.

There are no immediate reports of damage or casualties from the rocket’s fall.

Gantz hits back at Netanyahu after criticism over Abbas praise

Israel Resilience party leader Benny Gantz hits back at Netanyahu after the prime minister criticized the ex-IDF chief for hinting at an Israeli pullback from the West Bank, drawing praise from the PA.

“You’ve expelled Jews. You’ve paid Hamas protection [money]. Your time is over, we are carrying on,” Gantz says according a party statement.

Gantz told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had been “approved by the Israeli government and implemented by the army and settlers in a painful but good way.” Without explicitly mentioning the West bank, Gantz said that “[one should] learn from it and apply it to other places.”

Afterwards, Abbas’s spokesman cautiously welcomed Gantz’s remarks as “encouraging.”

In a video praising the results of the Likud primaries Netanyahu attacked Gantz saying: “The real trouble is that [Palestinian Authority President] Abbas is also pleased, because today Gantz said he would carry out a second disengagement from the West Bank, and Abbas just wished him luck in the elections.”

Top 40 on Likud’s new party slate for Knesset

According to the final results of the Likud primary elections, the top 40 on the ruling party’s Knesset slate are expected to line up as follows:

1. Benjamin Netanyahu
2. Yuli Edelstein
3. Yisrael Katz
4. Gilad Erdan
5. Gidon Sa’ar
6. Miri Regev
7. Yoav Galant
8. Yariv Levin
9. Nir Barkat
10. Gila Gamliel
11. Avi Dichter
12. Ze’ev Elkin
13. Tzachi Hanegbi
14. Ofir Akunis
15. Chaim Katz
16. Tzipi Hotovely
17. Yuval Steinitz
18. David Amsalem
19. Pinchas Idan (Shfela region)
20. Amir Ohana
21. Netanyahu appointee
22. Ofir Katz (Galilee region)
23. Eti Atiah (Dan region and a new female candidate)
24. Yoav Kisch
25. David Bitan
26. Keren Barak (new female candidate)
27. Shlomo Karai (Negev region)
28. Netanyahu appointee
29. Miki Zohar
30. Avraham Nagosah (new immigrant)
31. Michal Shir (Tel Aviv region)
32. Mulla Petin (minority)
33. Kati Shitrit (new female candidate)
34. Mai Golan (youth candidate)
35. Uzi Dayan (coastal region)
36. Netanyahu appointee
37. Ariel Kallner (Haifa region)
38. New female candidate
39. Jerusalem region candidate
40. Sharren Haskel

Notably, the spots below the 25th spot are not yet locked, as questions remain regarding the interpretation of various aspects of the reserved spots. Party courts will rule on outstanding questions in the coming days.

Seven current MKs placed too low to have realistic chance of reelection: Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, Oren Hazan, Nava Boker, Anat Berko, Yaron Mazuz, Nurit Koren and Yehuda Glick.

Christian Embassy mourns passing of ‘visionary’ Rabbi Eckstein

The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem pays tribute to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, calling him a “unique pioneer and visionary of closer Jewish-Christian relations.”

In a statement, ICEJ President Dr. Jürgen Bühler says Eckstein foresaw “the strategic importance” of forging strong ties between the Jewish and Evangelical communities.”

“The generous aid that he gathered from Christians around the world brought vital assistance and tremendous blessings to countless Israeli,” he says. “The ICEJ extends our most sincere condolences to the Eckstein family. His daughter, Yael, and the Fellowship he founded can be proud of the great legacy of kindness and caring which he has left in their hands.”

Eckstein passed away earlier in the day from sudden heart failure at age 67.

Incoming rocket sirens blare in Gaza border communities

The IDF confirms that sirens indicating incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip are blaring in Sha’ar Hanegev in southern Israel.

Earlier reports said that a rocket launched from Gaza failed to clear the border and exploded inside the Palestinian territory.

Gaza rocket lands in open field, causing no injuries or damage

The rocket launched from the Gaza Strip landed in an open field in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council in southern Israel, Hadashot news reports.

The rocket exploded outside one of the Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip and caused no injuries or damage, according to the report.

The IDF says its investigating the rocket launch.

Netanyahu expresses ‘deep sorrow’ at passing of Rabbi Eckstein

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expresses “deep sorrow” at the passing of Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who died of sudden heart failure earlier in the evening.

Eckstein “did much to benefit the citizens of Israel and to strengthen the connection between Israel and Christian communities. May his memory be a blessing.”

Eckstein was the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. His funeral will be held in Jerusalem tomorrow.

‘A great man’: Rivlin mourns passing of Rabbi Eckstein

President Reuven Rivlin eulogizes Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein as a “great man, a great Jew and a great Zionist.”

Earlier this evening, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the charity he founded over 35 years ago, said Eckstein, 67, died at his home in Jerusalem. Media reports said he died of heart failure.

Rouhani says Iran ready to accept friendly US ties if it ‘repents’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says his country would be ready to establish “friendly relations” with the United States if it apologized for past wrongs.

“Our slogan is friendly relations with the whole world,” he says.

That would even include “America, if it repents… and apologizes for its previous interferences in Iran, and is prepared to accept the greatness and dignity of the nation of Iran and the great Islamic Revolution,” he said.

“We are still ready to accept America’s… repentance despite the fact that for years it has done injustice to us,” he tells foreign diplomats in Tehran during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

— AFP

IDF hits Hamas outpost in southern Gaza after rocket launch — reports

The IDF struck at least one Hamas outpost in the southern Gaza Strip after a rocket was launched from the Palestinian territory, according to Gaza media reports.

The reports say the IDF targeted a Hamas guard post east of Khan Younis, near the Israeli border. There are no immediate reports of injuries.

Earlier, a rocket fired from Gaza exploded in an open field outside a community in southern Israel, causing no injuries or damage.

Palestinians say US-backed Mideast summit is ‘futile’

A senior Palestinian official says the Palestinians have not been invited to next week’s Mideast conference in Poland and have no desire to participate unless the US changes its policies.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, says that current American policies will “only lead to futile results.”

The US and Poland are sponsoring the Feb. 13-14 conference, which they say is aimed at promoting peace and security in the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans on attending.

The Palestinians accuse the Trump administration of being unfairly biased in favor of Israel. They say they will reject a planned US peace initiative unless it endorses an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

— AP

Hezbollah leader calls for Iran to arm Lebanon to confront Israel

The leader of Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah says he is willing to ask Iran to supply the Lebanese military with weapons and aerial defense systems to confront Israeli warplanes.

“Will the Lebanese government dare to accept the Iranian proposals? Why should Lebanon remain afraid to cooperate with Iran?” Nasrallah says in a televised address marking the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.

“I’m a friend of Iran and I’m willing to bring the Lebanese Army air defense systems from Iran to confront Israel,” Nasrallah says according to Lebanon’s Naharnet news site.

He admits Hezbollah is “affected” by the US sanctions in Iran, but vows the terrorist group would “overcome the difficulties” through its “firmness, will and resolve.”

Nasrallah says Iran is the strongest state in the region, and the so-called axis of resistance led by Tehran is the strongest it has ever been. The axis group include the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, Shiite militias in Iraq and Hezbollah.

He goes on to say that Iran won’t be fighting alone in the event the United States launches a war against it.

“If America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation,” he says, adding that the US America was set to retreat from the region.

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PA ‘encouraged’ by Gantz remarks on possible West Bank pullback

The spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas spokesman welcomes remarks made by Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, who raised the possibility of an Israeli pullback from the West Bank.

“It is encouraging if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Nabil Abu Rudeinah tells journalists in Ramallah.

But he says they needed more details about Gantz’s policies.

“We don’t know him yet, we heard about him. As President Abbas keeps saying all that we need is an Israeli government that believes in peace.”

Earlier, Gantz told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that Israel 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip had been “approved by the Israeli government and implemented by the army and settlers in a painful but good way.

“(One should) learn from it and apply it to other places,” the ex- IDF chief said.

Gantz did not explicitly mention the West Bank in his remarks and refrained from outlining conditions for any pullback from the West Bank.

His comments drew criticism from Netanyahu and other right-wing lawmakers who accused Gantz of being “leftist.”