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Last flights from China to land in Israel by morning as ban goes into effect

Health Ministry forbids direct flights, travelers from China to face two-week quarantine as world struggles to contain virulent coronavirus

China Eastern Airlines aircrew arrive at Sydney airport after landing on a plane from Shanghai on January 25, 2020. (Peter Parks/AFP)
China Eastern Airlines aircrew arrive at Sydney airport after landing on a plane from Shanghai on January 25, 2020. (Peter Parks/AFP)

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

Police to boost presence at Temple Mount for Friday prayers

The Israel Police announces it will station additional officers on and around the Temple Mount tomorrow, during Friday prayers, as a precautionary measure.

“The Israel Police will respond forcefully to any effort to violate public order and harm the peaceful holding of Friday prayers,” the police say in a statement.

— Judah Ari Gross

German far-right leader under investigation for tax evasion

BERLIN — The figurehead of Germany’s far-right AfD party Alexander Gauland is being investigated for tax evasion, prosecutors say, after his parliamentary immunity is lifted by MPs.

Gauland, 78, is one of the most prominent figures in the populist “Alternative for Germany” party, which rails against immigration, Islam, and environmentalism.

German parliamentarians vote to remove his legal immunity to facilitate the probe, first reported by German media last March.

Frankfurt prosecutors say they would search Gauland’s properties today, as part of the investigation.

A spokesperson for AfD tells AFP that the investigations concerned “old proceedings from the year before last,” adding that the party would give a further statement later today.

The case is not believed to be related to recent investigations into other AfD politicians over illegal party funding.

Federal spokesman of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) Alexander Gauland speaks during the party congress of the party’s youth party “Junge Alternative” in Seebach, eastern Germany, on June 2, 2018. (AFP Photo/dpa/Alexander Prautzsch)

Founded seven years ago, the AfD is now Germany’s largest opposition party in terms of parliamentary seats.

In recent years, it has celebrated unprecedented electoral successes, entering the national parliament for the first time in 2017, but has also caused outrage with its challenge to Germany’s culture of remembrance for Nazi crimes.

In 2018, Gauland said that the 12-year dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, which oversaw the systematic murder of six million Jews, was a “speck of bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”

AfD chairman for two years until he gave up the post last year, Gauland is still the party’s parliamentary leader in the German Bundestag.

— AFP

Pompeo calls China’s Communist Party ‘the central threat of our times’

LONDON — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls China’s ruling Communist Party “the central threat of our times” that challenges Western principles.

“The Chinese Communist Party presents the central threat of our times,” Washington’s top diplomat says today at a joint appearance with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

He adds that Western allies must “ensure that the next century is governed by these Western democratic principles.”

— AFP

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at an event with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (unseen) at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London on January 30, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool/AFP)

10 civilians killed by Russian strikes in Syrian rebel bastion — monitor

ARIHA, Syria — Airstrikes kill 10 civilians near a bakery and a medical clinic in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region today as government forces keep up a ground offensive.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Russian warplanes hit the Idlib province town of Ariha, but the Russian defense ministry says its “aviation did not carry out any combat tasks in this area of Syria.”

The government and its Russian allies have upped their deadly bombardment of Syria’s last major rebel bastion, slowly chipping away at it from the south.

Rebel-held territory has shrunk to just over half of Idlib province, along with slivers of neighboring Aleppo and Latakia, following a series of government gains.

Earlier today, Russian airstrikes hit near a bakery and the Al-Shami clinic in Ariha which is now out of service, the Observatory says.

The monitor says it determines whose planes carried out strikes according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions.

— AFP

An aerial view of rubble and debris at the site of reported airstrikes on the rebel-held town of Ariha in the northern countryside of Syria’s Idlib province on January 30, 2020. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP)

Hamas operative killed during ‘work accident’ in Gaza tunnel

A member of the Hamas terror group’s military wing dies in a “work accident” while working in one of its underground tunnels in the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas affiliated website Al-Resalah names the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades member as Ibrahim al-Shantaf of Sheikh Radwan in northern Gaza.

Netanyahu jokes with backpacker freed from Russian prison: No stopovers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jokes with Naama Issachar as she returns to Israel after her early release from a Russian prison.

“You know what the lesson is? No stopovers,” Netanyahu says on the plane.

Issachar, 27, was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison after some 10 grams of cannabis were found in her luggage during a layover in Moscow as she returned to Israel from India last year.

She was pardoned yesterday by Russian President Vladimir Putin after months of lobbying by Netanyahu for her release, which comes ahead of Knesset elections on March 2.

IDF says surveillance equipment on Gaza border apparently hit by gunfire

The IDF says a piece of surveillance equipment along the Gaza border was apparently struck by fire.

A statement from the military describes the equipment as an “observation pole.”

Polish government urged to end ‘damaging’ impasse at Jewish museum

WARSAW, Poland — Two co-founders of a prominent Jewish history museum in Warsaw urge their third partner — the Polish government — to comply with an agreement to re-appoint the museum’s former director, saying today that a failure to do so threatens the museum and is damaging to Polish-Jewish relations.

A standoff over the leadership of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw has dragged on since May, when the museum’s former director, Dariusz Stola, won a competition to serve a second five-year term. Culture Minister Piotr Glinski has refused so far to reappoint Stola, saying that he was politically biased against Poland’s right-wing government.

In response, Warsaw and the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland demands the government reappoint Stola.

“We can no longer accept the situation in which one of the most important institutions of culture in Poland remains in a state of limbo,” the Warsaw mayor and the chairman of the board of the private Jewish historical institute say in a joint statement.

There is no immediate comment from the Culture Ministry.

But Glinski last year claimed the museum was running smoothly under acting director, Zygmunt Stępinski. Under museum statues, an acting director can only serve for a year, and Stępinsk’s term will end in late February.

In their statement, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski and the Piotr Wiślicki, chairman of the board of the Jewish historical association, say that as that deadline approaches, the museum’s functioning is threatened and that international partners “find this impasse beyond comprehension.”

— AP

A woman passes the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland, July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Top Iranian official: Trump’s ‘crusader’ peace plan will fail

TEHRAN, Iran — A close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader describes the US Mideast peace plan as a continuation of the objectives of “crusaders and Zionists.”

The plan, announced Tuesday by US President Donald Trump, consists of “selling and dismantling Muslim lands,” says Ali Akbar Velayati, who advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on foreign policy issues.

Trump’s “objective is the realization of the goal of the crusaders and Zionists,” Velayati says today during a brief press conference in Tehran.

The US plan, seen as overwhelmingly supportive of Israeli goals, has been firmly rejected by the Palestinians.

“Trump will fail in this plan, just like he has failed in his previous anti-Islamic plans,” the former Iranian foreign minister adds, saying its announcement had already united Palestinian leaders “like never before in the history of their battle.”

“The Islamic Republic will certainly not remain silent,” Velayati says.

“The Iranian people, guided by the supreme leader, continue to consider the Palestinian question as the principal concern of the Muslim world.”

Iran will continue its consultations with “Arab countries that remain faithful to the Palestinian cause,” he adds.

Iran does not recognize Israel.

On Tuesday evening, Iran’s foreign ministry called Trump’s plan “the treason of the century” and said it was “doomed to fail.”

— AFP

Israeli aircraft reportedly strike southern Gaza

Israeli aircraft targeted farmlands in the southern Gaza Strip with three strikes, the Hamas-linked Shehab reports.

— Adam Rasgon

IDF confirms strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza

The military confirms that Israeli aircraft and tanks struck a number of Hamas intelligence gathering equipment in southern Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces said the strikes were in response to the launching of incendiary balloons from the Strip toward Israeli territory and gunfire earlier today at IDF surveillance equipment along the border.

Ex-chief of Hamas: Palestinians working to make Trump deal fail

The former leader of the Hamas terror group says the Palestinians are actively working to thwart US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

“We completely reject this deal and we are confident it will fail. But we will not wait for its failure, we will make it fail,” Khaled Mashaal tells Reuters.

Mashaal, who lives in Qatar, says “positive steps” have been taken on a united Palestinian response, without elaborating.

“God willing, it will cause this deal to fail,” he says.

Khaled Mashaal speaks in Doha, Qatar, August 28, 2014. (AP/Osama Faisal)

He also criticizes unidentified Arab states for expressing support for Trump’s peace efforts and not rejecting his proposal.

“No country, Arab, Muslim or international, has the right to accept something the Palestinians have rejected,” Mashaal says.

He calls for a “return to the traditional, Arab, Islamic position which holds onto Palestinian rights.”

Mashaal also says the timing of the plan’s release was tied to domestic politics in the US and Israel and boasts the Palestinians have sunk past peace initiatives.

“Our people have thwarted many poisonous deals and settlement plans that others have tried to impose on our people,” he says.

Backpacker jailed by Russia on drug charges lands in Israel after release

Naama Issachar touches down at Ben Gurion Airport after her release from a Russian prison, where she was jailed on drug charges.

She returns to Israel on a plane carrying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made an impromptu visit to Moscow ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pardon of Issachar.

Netanyahu insists Russia trip not tied to jailed backpacker

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists he would have made a surprise visit to Russia this week even if an Israeli-American woman jailed there on drug charges wasn’t released, according to the Ynet news site.

Netanyahu tells reporters the trip to Russia was to update Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Trump peace plan.

He also says Issachar’s case cast a pall over Israeli-Russian ties.

“The ties with are strategic, first and foremost. We cultivate the ties with Russia to prevent a military clash in the region and therefore the [Issachar] crisis could darken the entire relationship,” the premier is quoted saying by the Walla news site.

‘I’m still in shock,’ Naama Issachar says after landing in Israel

Naama Issachar makes her first comments since landing in Israel after being released from Russian prison.

“Thank you to everyone,” she tells reporters. “I’m still in shock from the entire situation.”

Israel bars flights from China to block spread of virus

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman announces flights from China will be barred from landing in Israel until further notice over concerns about the new coronavirus.

Speaking at a press conference, Litzman also says Israelis who visited China will need to be quarantined at home for two weeks.

Europe evacuates citizens from China amid virus fears

LISBON, Portugal — European countries step up efforts to contain the virus sweeping through central China, sending a chartered plane there to evacuate hundreds of citizens, scrapping more commercial flights to Chinese destinations and closing Russia’s long border with the Asian giant.

Italian authorities keep some 7,000 people on board a cruise ship in the Mediterranean for nearly a day while they check one passenger for a possible infection.

An A380 evacuation flight takes off Thursday morning from a former Portuguese military airport at Beja, southeast of Lisbon, carrying just its pilots and crew.

Captain Antonios Efthymiou says the flight is going first to Paris to pick up a team of doctors and extra crew, before heading to Hanoi and then China. He tells Portuguese media it will bring back about 350 Europeans. He says the crew will take special medical precautions but does not elaborate.

China has reported 170 deaths and at least 7,800 infections have been confirmed worldwide from the virus that emerged last month in the central city of Wuhan. Sports, transport and cultural events have been canceled across the country and over 50 million people are under a government lockdown in central China.

In Europe, there have been just 10 confirmed cases of the virus so far: five in France, four in Germany and one in Finland.

— AP

Right-wing MK: If we delay annexation, who knows when we’ll have another chance?

As US and Israeli officials seem to be backtracking on last week’s enthusiastic promises of Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank in the coming days, Israeli right-wing politicians are responding with alarm.

“This is a once-in-52-year opportunity to apply sovereignty,” says Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked.

“If we delay it now, who knows when we’ll get another chance.”

She says her right-wing party would act to ensure a decision on annexation is brought before the cabinet next week.

Ten months late, a newly freed Naama Issachar arrives home in Rehovot

Backpacker Naama Issachar arrives at long last at her home in the central Israeli city of Rehovot.

The arrival brings to a close the dramatic saga of the 27-year-old woman who faced a 7.5-year prison sentence for carrying a few grams of pot through a Russian airport during a layover on her way home from India.

She has spent the last 10 months in a Russian prison, until her release today after receiving a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin following months of public campaigning by her family and a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Beijing-Tel Aviv flight said grounded after Israel forbids flights from China

A Hainan Airlines flight set to take off from Beijing to Israel in the coming hours is now grounded and delayed due to Israel’s decision a short time ago to prevent flights from China landing in Israel, amid fears of the virulent coronavirus spreading through central China.

The plane isn’t large, with only a few dozen passengers, the Ynet news site reports.

Pentagon seeking Iraqi permission to deploy missile defenses

WASHINGTON — The United States asks Iraq for permission to put Patriot missile systems at bases hosting US troops to improve defenses against attacks like the January 8 Iranian missile strike that caused brain injuries to more than 50 US troops, Pentagon officials say.

“That is one of the matters we have to work on and work through” with the Baghdad government, Defense Secretary Mark Esper tells a Pentagon news conference. He and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, make clear that they want Patriots in Iraq as part of an effort to improve protection of US forces there.

The United States has about 5,000 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces in their fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State. The relationship is especially rocky in the aftermath of the American airstrike January 3 that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, at Baghdad’s international airport. The Iraqi government has indicated it could expel all foreign forces, although it has not yet taken action against the US presence.

There were no Patriots or other air defenses in Iraq capable of shooting down ballistic missiles at the time of the Iranian strike that hit Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq. Milley says the missiles were armed with 1,000-pound and 2,000-pound high-explosive warheads. He says it was fortunate that the attack caused no American loss of life or limb.

Milley says that in addition to securing Iraqi government permission, the US military needs to work through mechanical and logistical issues to move a Patriot battalion to Iraq. There was not already one there because US commanders judged that Iraq was a less-likely target for an Iranian ballistic missile attack than other Persian Gulf countries.

— AP

Russia closing its land border with China

BEIJING — Russia is closing its land border with China, similar to steps taken by Mongolia and North Korea, to guard against a new viral outbreak.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin issues the decree Thursday, ordering the 2,600-mile land border with China closed starting Friday. It had been de facto closed because of the Lunar New Year holiday, but Russian authorities say the closure would be extended until March 1.

Train traffic between the countries is halted except for one train connecting Moscow and Beijing. But no decision has been made about air traffic between Russia and China. Some countries have reduced flights and airlines have halted them because of the new virus that has sickened thousands in central China.

Russia has not confirmed any cases of the virus. The dozens of cases outside China mostly have been in people who visited Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.

— AP

Naama is home, but 628 Israelis remain incarcerated overseas

With Naama Issachar now safely home, Channel 12 notes that she wasn’t the only Israeli incarcerated in a foreign land. It reports there are 628 Israelis currently imprisoned overseas.

Of course, Naama’s case drew public sympathy because of the draconian 7.5-year prison sentence for possession of 9 grams of marijuana in stowed luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport. For many of the Israelis imprisoned abroad, including 168 in the United States, 21 in prisons in Berlin and 17 in Madrid, their punishments are presumably more fitting to their crimes.

The list provided by Channel 12:

– In all, 628 Israelis are incarcerated abroad.
– Of them, Russia is holding 66.
– The United States 168.
– Ukraine 41.
– Europe 54, of them 21 in Berlin and 17 in Madrid.
– Japan 11.
– India 7.
– South American countries 60.
– Turkey 17.
– Jordan 2.

The Israeli convicts are serving time for:
– Drug possession 153.
– Murder 35.
– Sexual assault and pedophilia 20.

Last two flights from China until late March will land in Israel tonight

Hebrew media clarifies the situation with Israel-China flights after today’s decision by Israel’s Health Ministry to bar all flights from China amid a global effort to contain a virulent coronavirus spreading in central China.

According to the latest information, two more flights will land in Israel from China tonight and tomorrow morning — and will be the last flights until at least March 25.

A Hainan Airlines flight grounded in Beijing before it could take off has now been released. It will land in Israel overnight.

A second flight, by the Israeli airline El Al, will take off tonight and land in Israel tomorrow morning. It carries 100 passengers.

Iraq says joint operations with US-led coalition resume

BAGHDAD — Joint military operations with the US-led coalition to counter the Islamic State group resume after a nearly three-week pause, an Iraqi military statement says.

The pause comes amid heightened tensions after a Washington-led airstrike killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad.

The statement says joint operations had resumed in light of the continued threat posed by IS. Militants belonging to the group are holed up in parts of northern Iraq.

The statement also implies that Baghdad is standing by intentions to reorganize Iraq’s military relationship with the US.

“In light of continued activities by the terrorist group (IS) in many areas of Iraq and for the purpose of making use of the remaining time of the international coalition before organizing a new relationship … it was decided to carry out joint actions,” the statement says.

The statement is issued by the office of the armed forces’ commander in chief. As prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi assumes that role.

The coalition paused operations in support of Iraqi forces in the fight against IS militants on January 5 after a US airstrike killed Iran’s elite Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on Iraqi soil, sparking outrage among Iraqi officials.

— AP

World Cup ski races canceled in China now move to Austria

OBERHOFEN, Switzerland — Two World Cup ski races canceled in China because of the ongoing virus outbreak are being moved to Austria.

The downhill and super-G races were originally scheduled to be held next month at Yanqing, a venue set to be used for the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Replacement races will now be held on February 13-14 at Saalbach-Hinterglemm, the International Ski Federation (FIS) says.

The races were the only men’s World Cup events set to take place on the Olympic speed course ahead of the first Winter Games in China.

Saalbach hosted the 1991 Alpine worlds and is bidding to host the 2025 edition. It lost a FIS vote for the 2023 worlds to the French resorts of Courchevel and Meribel.

Despite losing its debut visit to China, the men’s World Cup circuit will still go to Japan the following week for slalom and giant slalom races at Naeba.

The women’s World Cup is due in Yanqing in February 2021 for two speed races to test the Olympic venue.

The coronavirus outbreak in China has also caused the postponement of track and field’s indoor world championships for one year, and forced 2020 Tokyo Olympics qualifying events in soccer, basketball and boxing to be moved to other countries.

— AP

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