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Netanyahu warns ‘there may be no choice’ but to tighten lockdown

PM defends 3-week closure set to begin Friday afternoon, says government ‘made every effort to balance the health considerations and economic needs’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 17, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 17, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they happened.

East Jerusalem woman arrested for allegedly spying for Hezbollah

Israeli authorities have arrested an East Jerusalem woman who the Shin Bet security service says spied for Hezbollah.

The Shin Bet last month arrested Yasmin Jaber, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem who works for the National Library at Hebrew University, on charges of working for the Lebanese terror group.

The Shin Bet claims that Jaber was recruited during an international “youth conference” in Lebanon in 2015, which Hezbollah exploited to locate and recruit Israeli Arabs as agents.

Since her recruitment by the Lebanese terror group, Jaber communicated with her Hezbollah handler through secret messages on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, according to the Shin Bet.

“This Shin Bet investigation… is the product of a lengthy intelligence operation to locate those suspected of being recruited by Hezbollah. It is another step in the counterterrorism efforts carried out in the past year against Quds Force and Hezbollah attempts to recruit Israeli Arabs,” a senior Shin Bet official says in a statement.

Earlier this year, the Shin Bet accused Beirut Hamoud, an Arab Israeli woman living in Lebanon, of working to recruit Israeli citizens as operatives for the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group. Hamoud denied the claims, saying that she had merely been meeting with old friends of hers.

The Shin Bet says an indictment for Jaber will be issued in the coming days.

— Aaron Boxerman

Israeli and Dubai diamond exchanges ink trade deal

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Israeli and Dubai diamond exchanges announce they had struck a deal to boost trade, just days after Israel signed breakthrough agreements with United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House to normalize their relations.

With the US-brokered agreements, the UAE and Israel are taking their quiet economic ties public for the first time. The UAE announced the end of its boycott of Israel last month, allowing commerce to flow between the oil-rich Emirates and Israel. Already, Emirati and Israeli banks and research firms have rushed to sign agreements.

The Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan on December 18, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel, once the world’s largest diamond sales center, remains a major leader in the polishing of large diamonds and is home to a booming high-tech sector. Dubai, a regional financial hub, also hosts an emerging diamond trade. The industry there has grown from an export trade of $3.6 billion in 2003 to $23 billion in 2019.

The Israeli Diamond Exchange will open an office in Dubai, while the Dubai Multi Commodities Center, an economic free zone, will set up shop in Ramat Gan, Israel, the base of the Israeli exchange.

Ahmed Bin Sulayem, head of the DMCC and chairman of the Dubai Diamond Exchange, expresses excitement about the economic benefits for both sides, saying the agreement “will attract businesses to the emirate as well as boost the regional and international trade of this precious stone.”

Yoram Dvash, head of Israel’s Diamond Exchange, praises Dubai’s economic free zones and “convenient” business conditions.

— AP

UK’s Johnson warns tougher virus measures needed to ‘protect’ Christmas

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warns that authorities will have to impose tougher measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 and “protect” the Christmas holidays as the government prepares to introduce stricter measures in northeast England.

Johnson’s comments come amid reports that the government plans to impose a 10 p.m. curfew on pubs and restaurants in response to a recent jump in confirmed coronavirus cases. Local officials asked for more restrictions now to prevent a tighter lockdown later.

Johnson writes in a piece published in The Sun newspaper that the only way to be certain the country can enjoy the winter holidays “is to be tough now.”

He says he wants to “stop the surge, arrest the spike, stop the second hump of the dromedary, flatten the second hump.”

Over the past two days, opposition lawmakers had criticized Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and accused his government of lacking a cohesive plan to tackle a second wave of the pandemic. A shortage of testing capacity is a particular concern, with people around the country complaining they were unable to book appointments for tests or directed to testing centers far from their homes.

Widespread testing is seen as crucial to controlling the spread of the virus because it allows those who are infected to self-isolate while helping health officials identify hot spots and trace those who are infected.

Daily infection rates have risen to levels not seen since late May, forcing the British government to impose limits on public gatherings.

— AP

Hundreds of Hasidic pilgrims at Ukraine border refuse to return despite Israeli plea

KYIV, Ukraine — Hundreds of Hasidic Jews are still massed at Ukraine’s border, with some saying they had no intention of leaving, even though Kyiv has refused their entry citing coronavirus and Israel has urged them to return.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews head to the central Ukrainian city of Uman every Jewish New Year — which falls on September 18-20 this year — to visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Breslav Hasidic movement.

The believers departed for Uman this year even though both the Ukrainian and Israeli governments last month had urged them not to travel because of the pandemic.

Speaking to AFP from the Ukrainian-Belarusian border, one of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, Itsik Cohen, says the believers are hoping for divine intervention.

“I’m waiting and praying that they open the borders, so we can have the privilege of being with our Rabbi, God willing,” says Cohen, an Israeli Breslav Hasid from Jerusalem.

“We believe in God, and if God wants it this way, we need to do anything we can to show our determination, to the very last minute.”

Ukrainian authorities say the situation hasn’t changed since Monday when crowds of believers began building up on the closed Ukraine border and pilgrims were still refusing to leave.

“They are dancing, they are singing, they are praying,” the spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, tells AFP.

He says that some 1,000 pilgrims are staying between Belarusian and Ukrainian border crossings, while more people were in Belarus.

— AFP

Number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition rises to record 579

The number of COVID-19 patients in serious condition again climbs to a new record high, as the number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began rises to 172,322.

According to the Health Ministry, there are 45,488 active cases, with 579 people in serious condition.

The death toll stands 1,163, down from the 1,165 reported yesterday evening. The ministry doesn’t explain the discrepancy.

The Health Ministry says 1,069 new cases have been recorded since midnight, after 4,546 were confirmed yesterday.

Novichok-tainted bottle found in Russian opposition leader’s room, colleagues say

MOSCOW — Colleagues of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny say that a bottle of water with a trace of the Novichok nerve agent was found in his hotel room after his poisoning.

Navalny fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow on August 20 and was flown to Germany, where he was kept in an induced coma for more than two weeks as he was treated with an antidote. Members of his team accused the Kremlin of involvement in the poisoning, charges that Russian officials have vehemently denied.

The Kremlin has bristled at calls from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders to answer questions about the poisoning, urging Germany to provide evidence of his poisoning.

On Tuesday, Navalny posted a picture of himself from his bed in Berlin’s Charite Hospital, hugged by his wife and children. “I still can’t do almost anything on my own, but yesterday I managed to breathe on my own for the entire day,” he added in the post.

A video posted on Navalny’s Instagram today shows his team working around his hotel room in Tomsk before he left the city and collapsed on a flight back to Moscow.

Navalny’s Instagram says they returned to the room an hour after learning that he had become ill, accompanied by a lawyer, and packed the bottles and other items for further inspection.

“Two weeks later, a German laboratory found a trace of Novichok on a bottle from the Tomsk hotel room,” they say. “And then another three labs that took Alexei’s samples proved that he was poisoned with it. Now we understand: It was done before he left his room to go to the airport.”

— AP

2 hospitals open underground virus wards to ready for possible surge in patients

Rambam Medical Center in Haifa and Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva are readying underground coronavirus wards to prepare for a possible jump in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, the Ynet news site reports.

Rambam’s underground facility, which is in the hospital’s parking garage, will initially have 110 beds and has the capacity for 770.

A statement from the hospital says the facility will start operating next week, with patients from its existing coronavirus wards to be transferred there.

The news site says the new ward at Beilinson, which has 206 beds, is expected to beginning receiving its patients tomorrow from the north, where there is less capacity at hospitals to house those sick with COVID-19.

Virus hits Lebanese prison as inmates jockey for release

BEIRUT — Lebanon’s largest prison is grappling with an alarming coronavirus outbreak, as many inmates refuse to take preventative measures or get tested under the impression that catching the virus could speed up their release as part of a rumored general amnesty, the head of the country’s doctors union warns.

Over 200 of the 3,000 detainees at Roumieh prison have tested positive in recent days, Sharaf Abu Sharaf, president of Lebanese Order of Physicians, tells The Associated Press.

The outbreak in the prison east of Beirut, which is notorious for overcrowding, comes as Lebanon is witnessing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and deaths. Some detainees’ families have urged the state to issue amnesty to certain detainees to reduce the possibility of the virus sweeping through the country’s prison population.

“Overcrowding is the prison’s main problem,” Abu Sharaf says, adding that the 223 detainees who tested positive were being quarantined in a separate building inside the prison compound. He says the vast majority of detainees had minor or no symptoms, and a small number had been taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

Some observers say the spread of the virus in Lebanon is being used to pressure the government to implement a general amnesty for prisoners.

— AP

Roumieh Prison, in the Beirut suburb of Roumieh, Lebanon, August 18, 2009. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

Thousands of cops to deploy nationwide to enforce holiday lockdown

Thousands of police officers are set to deploy throughout Israel ahead of a three-week lockdown that will begin tomorrow at 2 p.m., hours before Rosh Hashanah begins.

The cops will be assisted by hundreds of soldiers to enforce the lockdown measures, which remain in effect through Sukkot.

Police say they will focus on enforcing the virus rules and the lockdown’s restrictions on movement.

3 Palestinians shot dead ‘meters away’ from Israeli checkpoint, PA says

Three Palestinians — one man and two women — were shot and killed “meters away” from an Israeli checkpoint northeast of Bethlehem, Palestinian Authority police spokesperson Louay Irzeiqat says.

According to the police statement, four people in an unmarked vehicle stopped the three Palestinians and shot them.

Irzeiqat says that the identities of the shooters remain unknown and that PA law enforcement are mobilizing in the area to investigate.

— Aaron Boxerman

FM Zarif wishes Iran’s Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wishes a happy Rosh Hashanah to his country’s Jewish community and Jews worldwide.

“On the occasion of the New Year, I wish Iranian—and indeed all—Jews happiness, and most of all, good health,” he writes on Twitter.

Despite the regular calls by Iranian leaders for Israel’s destruction, Zarif and other top officials in the Islamic Republic have extended Rosh Hashanah greetings in recent years.

Some 100,000 Jews lived in Iran before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, but that number has since dwindled to below 10,000 as most fled the country.

In his tweet, Zarif also takes a shot at the normalization deals Israel inked with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which were signed as part of the US-backed Abraham Accords.

“The children of Adam, Abraham and Moses are siblings who deserve to live in a real democratic peace—not business deal,” he says.

Polish parliament drops proposed ban on export of kosher and halal meat

A ban on the for-export production of kosher and halal meat in Poland is off the table for the parliament there.

An amendment to the draft of the Law on Animal Protection introduced by the agriculture committee omits the ban proposal from the bill submitted last week by the ruling Law and Justice party, wPolityce.pl reports.

Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz of the Polish People’s Party warns during a committee debate today that banning the for-export production of halal and kosher meat will cost the Polish economy $1.8 billion.

The amended bill ends the breeding of animals for the fur industry, bans the use of circus animals and increases supervision of animal shelters.

Animal welfare activists oppose the slaughter of animals for kosher and halal meat because it precludes stunning before the animals’ throats are cut. Proponents of the practice reject claims it is cruel and say it induces a quick and humane death for the animal.

— JTA

US sanctions 2 companies, individual over Hezbollah links

The US Treasury Department announces sanctions on two Lebanon-based firms and an individual for their alleged ties to the Hezbollah terror group.

The Treasury names the companies as Arch Consulting and Meamar Construction. It says Sultan Khalifah As’ad, a member of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, has close ties with both firms.

According to a statement, the two companies worked with a former Lebanese minister under US sanctions to win lucrative government contracts and then kicked up profits it earned on these tenders to Hezbollah’s Executive Council.

The statement says As’ad was a founder of Meamar and that Arch was registered in the name of a Lebanese-backed politician.

“Through Hezballah’s exploitation of the Lebanese economy and manipulation of corrupt Lebanese officials, companies associated with the terrorist organization are awarded government contracts,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is quoted saying.

He adds: “The United States remains committed to targeting Hezballah and its supporters as they corruptly abuse Lebanese resources to enrich their leaders while the Lebanese people suffer from inadequate services.”

Netanyahu said to summon virus czar for urgent meeting on upcoming lockdown

Prime Minister Netanyahu has summoned coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu to an urgent meeting to discuss further tightening the three-week lockdown set to take effect tomorrow afternoon, Channel 12 news reports.

The unsourced reports says Netanyahu called the meeting because he is concerned over the public’s response to the lockdown, and felt the version approved by ministers had too many loopholes.

The government approved the lockdown measures on Sunday, hours before Netanyahu left for Washington to sign normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Due to the meeting, a press conference Gamzu was scheduled to give has been delayed.

MK says government has agreed to ease limitation on movement during lockdown

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, tells lawmakers the government has agreed to ease the limitation on movement during the upcoming lockdown.

Asher says during the meeting the government will approve extending the distance Israelis can travel from their homes for non-essential activities from 500 meters to 1 kilometer.

2 US senators warn Poland’s president on anti-Semitism, Holocaust restitution

WASHINGTON — Two US senators write to Polish President Andrzej Duda to express their concern about a rise in what they say is anti-Semitic discourse, citing one of his own statements.

The letter sent by Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Republic Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma on several occasions notes the close defense ties of the United States and Poland and suggests a failure to address anti-Semitism and advance Holocaust restitution could impede the growth of the relationship.

Much of the rhetoric singled out in the letter, which was released yesterday, has to do with the debate in Poland over Holocaust restitution. It became an issue in the recent presidential campaign when Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party, won reelection.

“We are alarmed by growing anti-Semitic discourse in Poland and scapegoating of the Jewish community, which run counter to our nations’ shared values,” the letter says. “Specifically, during Poland’s 2020 presidential campaign, the Law and Justice Party and state television peddled anti-Semitic tropes and thinly veiled demagoguery.”

It cites a number of insinuations that Duda’s rival in the election, Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, was in the pocket of Jews pressing the restitution issue.

Among these was a July 9 statement by Duda.

“I will never sign a bill which says that we will treat the inheritance of people from one ethnic group more favorably than from others,” he said.

— JTA

Polish President Andrzej Duda flashes V-signs after addressing supporters as exit poll results were announced during the presidential election in Lowicz, Poland, on June 28, 2020. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP)

Police release map of lockdown checkpoints

Police release a map showing where in the country checkpoints will be placed when the three-week holiday lockdown takes effect tomorrow afternoon.

Tighter restrictions being pushed by PM won’t be decided on until Monday — TV

Tighter restrictions that Prime Minister Netanyahu is pushing to introduce as part of the upcoming holiday lockdown will not be deliberated by the government until Monday, after Rosh Hashanah ends, according to Channel 12 news.

Virus czar warns of ‘disaster’ if Israelis pick and choose which restrictions to follow

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu says Israel has no choice but to enter a three-week lockdown beginning tomorrow afternoon due to the high rate of infection in Israel.

Gamzu warns the virus will only further spread if Israelis pick and choose which lockdown measures to obey.

“We’ll bring a disaster upon ourselves,” he says during a press conference.

He also says restrictions were lifted too quickly following the initial lockdown, leading to virus’s resurgence, and that the proper tools weren’t ready to avoid further sweeping restrictions.

Gamzu speaks after meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu to deliberate further tightening the lockdown measures set to begin tomorrow afternoon.

No decision made by Netanyahu, virus czar to tighten virus lockdown — reports

Prime Minister Netanyahu and coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu didn’t decide on any immediate decisions to tighten the upcoming lockdown during their meeting this evening, Hebrew media reports say.

Germany to improve security at Jewish sites after Halle synagogue attack

BERLIN — Germany is providing 22 million euros ($26 million) to improve security of synagogues and other Jewish sites in the country following an anti-Semitic attack last year.

The government pledged to step up security after a right-wing extremist tried to force his way into a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, killing two passers-by after he failed to get in.

The botched attempt at carrying out a massacre caused alarm in Germany, which has sought to protect its Jewish population in response to the genocide of 6 million Jews perpetrated during the Nazi era.

“The Jewish community can rely on the German government to do everything to ensure their necessary protection,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says. “We’re aware of our responsibility.”

The head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, says the new funds would help Jewish communities that are struggling with the financial burden of security measures.

“The attack in Halle drastically (shows) us that Jewish life needs massive protection,” he says.

— AP

Carpenter Thomas Thiele, front, removes the bullet hole-ridden door of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, July 28, 2020. (Hendrik Schmidtpa/dpa via AP)

Netanyahu to give ‘update to the public’ ahead of holiday lockdown

Prime Minister Netanyahu will give a televised “update to the public” at 8:45 p.m., his office says, ahead of a three-week lockdown that will begin tomorrow afternoon and run through the upcoming holidays.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Finance Minister Israel Katz will also give statements.

Knesset committee okays extending lockdown travel limitation to 1 kilometer

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee approves extending the distance Israelis will be allowed to travel from their homes during the upcoming lockdown from 500 meters to 1,000 meters.

Virus cabinet said to discuss declaring ‘national civil emergency’

The so-called coronavirus cabinet considered declaring a “national civil emergency,” due to concerns rising COVID-19 cases could overwhelm the healthcare system, when it convened this evening, Channel 13 news reports.

The network says the declaration, which the National Security Council is pushing for, would grant expansive powers to police and the security services and allow the government to prevent gatherings and protests.

During the meeting, ministers were shown forecasts predicting a marked rise in deaths and the number of patients in serious condition in coming weeks.

Netanyahu warns ‘there may be no choice’ but to tighten lockdown

Prime Minister Netanyahu defends the three-week lockdown set to take effect tomorrow.

“The lockdown is important, it’s necessary and in this lockdown we’ll stand together,” he says in a televised statement from his official residence.

Netanyahu says a new plan to address the economic fallout caused by the lockdown measures will be discussed later this evening.

He touts the government’s initial handling of the pandemic and says other countries besides Israel, which has one of the highest daily infection rates per capita in the world, are also reintroducing restricitons.

“We made every effort to balance the health considerations and economic needs,” he says.

The premier says due to current infection rates, “there may be no choice” but to tighten the lockdown and vows he won’t hesitate to do so if needed.

Netanyahu: We’ll beat the virus, but only if we are united

Other countries will also face the decision of whether to lock down again nationwide, “and in my opinion most of them will have no choice but to do so,” Netanyahu says.

He notes that Israel’s health care system “raised the red flag last week” and stresses that there has been a sharp rise in serious cases.

He denies that consultations on the lockdown have been friction-filled.

“I wouldn’t impose the lockdown if it wasn’t necessary,” he stresses, “and I won’t hesitate to tighten the restrictions if necessary…

“My obligation and responsibility as prime minister is not only to protect your health, but to protect your lives,” he says, and notes, “There’s a limit to what the health care teams can do (before the system is overwhelmed).”

He urges the public: “Wear masks and avoid gatherings” and says this will be necessary until there’s a vaccine. “The more this is done, the less there is a need for stringent measures. Those two steps are more important than any measures we impose.”

Regarding a vaccine, Netanyahu says “it will take another few months… it will take time… but it is in sight.”

“We’ll beat the coronavirus,” he notes, “but we’ll only beat the virus if we act together.”

Treasury chief vows to push for lowering salaries of ministers, MKs

Speaking after Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz announces a number of measures to help individuals and businesses hurt by the government-mandated restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.

He also says he’ll push a proposal to lower the salaries of ministers and Knesset members.

Health minister says lockdown ‘not enough,’ further restrictions needed

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says the three-week lockdown that will take effect tomorrow afternoon is “not enough,” arguing the high rates of new infections require additional restrictions.

Virus czar absent from televised statements ahead of lockdown

Not taking part in this evening’s televised statements to the public was coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu.

Reports say Gamzu decided not to participate after a tense meeting this evening with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the three-week lockdown, set to begin tomorrow, during which the two were said to have locked heads over the efficacy of the coming closure.

Netanyahu, however, denied in his remarks that consultations on the lockdown have been fractious.

While Netanyahu has regularly pushed for sweeping measures to contain the pandemic, Gamzu has expressed skepticism over the effectiveness of far-reaching restrictions in curbing the virus’s spread.

Iran’s Zarif lashes out at Pompeo over UN sanctions declaration

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif lashes out at US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for asserting UN sanctions on Iran were back in force, in a move disputed by other Security Council members.

“The world says NO Security Council sanctions were restored,” Zarif writes on Twitter.

“But Mr. ‘We lied, We cheated, We stole’ threatens to punish a world that refuses to live in his parallel universe,” he adds.

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Virus cabinet said to discuss declaring ‘national civil emergency’

The so-called coronavirus cabinet considered declaring a “national civil emergency,” due to concerns rising COVID-19 cases could overwhelm the healthcare system, when it convened this evening, Channel 13 news reports.

The network says the declaration, which the National Security Council is pushing for, would grant expansive powers to police and the security services and allow the government to prevent gatherings and protests.

During the meeting, ministers were shown forecasts predicting a marked rise in deaths and the number of patients in serious condition in coming weeks.