Israel Re-Opens Further With ‘Green Pass’ For Vaccinated

A Israeli healthcare worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at the Kupat Holim Clalit clinic in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

 

Israel took a step towards normalcy Sunday, re-opening a raft of businesses and services following its third national lockdown, with some sites only available to those who have been vaccinated.

Nearly three million people, almost a third of Israel’s population, have received the two recommended doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the world’s quickest inoculation pace per capita.

With a steady flow of data proving the Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy in stopping serious illness from Covid-19, Israel’s government has begun gradually easing restrictions.

Shopping malls and stores with street access re-opened Sunday, with certain limitations on crowd size.

But gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities are re-opening only to those who have been fully vaccinated and obtained the so-called green pass.

Israel’s green pass scheme is being closely-watched as a possible model for how other economies might re-open once a substantial part of the population is vaccinated, while stirring controversy over unequal access for those who opt out of the jab.

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Lifting weights at gym in Petah Tikva near Tel Aviv late Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Israel was moving ahead “with caution,” while imploring “everyone to get vaccinated.”

Standing at the entrance of a posh Tel Aviv gym, 90-year-old Ora Davidovicz said she “couldn’t wait” to go swimming.

“It’s been almost a year since I went to the pool,” she told AFP. “I’ve been counting the days.”

“All I have to do is put on my swim suit,” she said, before heading in.

As of Sunday, nearly 3.2 million Israelis are eligible for the green pass, according to the health ministry.

That includes 2.5 million people who had their second shot more than a week ago as well as nearly 700,000 people who have recovered from Covid-19.

At the family-owned Katalina shoe store in central Tel Aviv, Mordechai Nazarian said his business had been closed for eight of the last 12 months, with “little openings here and there” as Israel lifted restrictions between lockdowns.

“We hope this one is the right one,” he told AFP.

Israel, which has one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems, secured a substantial stock of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by paying above market price and by striking a data-sharing deal with the drug giant.

Netanyahu is hoping that the successful vaccine procurement and rollout will boost his support ahead of March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth vote in less than two years.

Israel Offers To Host Champions League And Euro 2020 Games

 

Israel has offered to host Champions League and Euro 2020 matches if the COVID-19 pandemic forces them to be moved from other countries.

The Israeli proposal follows the moving of several Champions League matches from Germany and Spain to Hungary, Romania and other countries as a result of coronavirus restrictions on travel.

Israel Football Association’s top officials spoke with UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin last week “about the possibility of hosting some of the Euro 2020 games in Israel, as well as the crucial stages of Champions League and Europa League games”, a spokesman for the association said on Wednesday.

A UEFA spokesman said however it was currently aiming to hold all of its competitions “in the cities that have already been chosen and is working hard with its partners and stakeholders to ensure that happens.”

UEFA insists it is sticking to its original plan of playing Euro 2020, delayed a year because of the pandemic, in 12 host cities spread across Europe despite the logistical and sanitary challenges.

Israel is the global leader in Covid vaccinations per capita. On Tuesday the country of about nine million people delivered a shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to its four millionth citizen.

Israel PM Netanyahu Denies Graft Allegation As Trial Resumes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a visit to the COVID-19 vaccination facility in Jerusalem on January 6, 2021. (Photo by Marc Israel SELLEM / POOL / AFP)

 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied corruption charges during a brief court appearance Monday, as his graft trial resumed weeks ahead of a fourth national election within two years.

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was formally charged last year over allegations of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

He had been compelled to appear in person to respond to the charges, after last month formally submitting his innocent plea in writing.

“I confirm the written answer submitted in my name,” Israel’s longest-serving premier said, after Jerusalem court judge Rivka Feldman Friedman asked his response to the charges against him.

 

In this file photo taken on February 9, 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP.

 

Netanyahu was referring to a January 18 court filing from his defence team which said: “the prime minister denies all charges” in each of the three separate cases against him.

The combative 71-year-old premier, who has previously blasted the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous”, spent just 20 minutes at Monday’s hearing, entering and exiting amid a heavy security deployment and dozens of protesters.

Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he is the victim of a witch-hunt.

– Further delay? –
The hearing continued in his absence for several hours, with defence lawyers Boaz Ben Zur and Amit Hadad accusing Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit — a Netanyahu appointee — of mishandling the case.

They argued that elements of the investigation were opened without required authorisations.

The three-judge panel later released a ruling saying they would examine that complaint before moving forward with the prosecution’s case.

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That could result in a delay that keeps Netanyahu out of court until after the March 23 election.

When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he had just won a political victory by forming a coalition government with election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive national polls.

But the fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serially dishonest.

It is unclear whether the cloud of the trial will hurt the premier’s re-election chances in March.

Israel’s parliament speaker Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu loyalist from his right-wing Likud party, insisted the court must postpone the trial.

Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.

Several recent polls place the Likud comfortably in the lead, but it is far from certain that it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.

– 4,000, 2,000, 1,000 –
The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.

The most serious, in which the premier is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, centres on the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020. (Photo by Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

 

Elovitch and his wife were also indicted in what is known as Case 4,000.

Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000) from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.

He would be forced to resign if convicted with all appeals exhausted, but that process would likely take several years.

Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with some demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.

Some protesters met Netanyahu’s motorcade outside the court on Monday, carrying placards bearing the words “Crime Minister”, while others taunted him as he entered and left the court.

“We are here to swipe (away) all the dirt and all the corruption that he has created,” protester Claudia Manoquian told AFP.

AFP

Netanyahu Returns To Court For Corruption Trial Hearing

 

Monday to formally respond to corruption charges, as his trial enters an intensified phase six weeks before he faces re-election. 

Netanyahu, the first Israeli premier to be indicted in office, was charged last year over allegations that he accepted improper gifts and sought to trade regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

The combative 71-year-old prime minister, who has blasted the charges as “fabricated and ludicrous”, was at the Jerusalem court conferring with his legal team shortly before the hearing was due to start.

Repeatedly suggesting the charges against him have been trumped up, Netanyahu has taken direct aim at his hand-picked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit.

At the Monday hearing, which was pushed back multiple times due to coronavirus restrictions, Netanyahu is compelled to deliver the defendant’s formal response to the allegations.

This marks the last pre-trial hearing with upcoming sessions focused on testimony and evidence.

The trial schedule may force Netanyahu to appear in court multiple times a week, as he campaigns ahead of Israel’s fourth election in less than two years to be held on March 23.

– ‘Election meddling’? –

When Netanyahu last appeared in court nine months ago, he was fresh off a political victory, forming a coalition government with his election rival Benny Gantz, following three inconclusive votes.

But that fraught coalition proved short-lived and collapsed in December, with Gantz branding Netanyahu as serially dishonest.

It is unclear whether the cloud of the trial will hurt the premier’s re-election chances in March.

Israel’s parliament speaker and Netanyahu loyalist Yariv Levin insisted the court must “postpone” the trial’s upcoming phase.

Proceeding now “will be lending a hand to blatant meddling in the elections”, he told the right-wing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday.

Levin charged that it was unfair for the prosecution to present its case during the election campaign, while the defence rebuttals are scheduled for after election day.

Several recent polls show that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud remains the strongest party by a comfortable margin, but it is far from certain that it will be able to form a 61-seat majority with its conservative and religious allies.

For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu is also facing a challenge from a prominent Likud defector: Gideon Saar, who broke with the prime minister to form his own New Hope party.

– 4,000, 2,000, 1,000 –

The charges against Netanyahu are divided into three separate cases.

The most serious — known as Case 4,000, in which the premier is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust — centres on the allegation that he negotiated with Shaul Elovitch of the telecommunications giant Bezeq to secure positive coverage on his Walla! news site in exchange for policies benefiting Bezeq.

Elovitch and his wife were also indicted.

Case 2,000 concerns allegations Netanyahu sought a deal with the owner of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that would have seen it give him more favourable coverage.

Case 1,000 involves allegations Netanyahu and his family received gifts, including luxury cigars, champagne and jewellery estimated to be worth more than 700,000 shekels ($213,000), from wealthy individuals, in exchange for financial or personal favours.

The prime minister denies wrongdoing.

Weekly protests against him have rumbled on for months, with demonstrators focusing on the graft allegations.

Others have protested against the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A crowd of protesters, at least one holding a banner emblazoned with the words “Crime Minister”, was outside the courtroom on Monday as Netanyahu’s motorcade arrived.

-AFP

ICC May Probe For War Crimes In Israeli-Palestinian Conflict After Ruling

 In this file photo taken on August 21, 2014 a Palestinian man mourns over the body of his relative Rami Abu Nahel, killed in an Israeli military strike, at Gaza city's Al-Shifa hospital. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
In this file photo taken on August 21, 2014 a Palestinian man mourns over the body of his relative Rami Abu Nahel, killed in an Israeli military strike, at Gaza city’s Al-Shifa hospital. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

 

The International Criminal Court’s ruling that it has jurisdiction over the situation in the Palestinian territories opens the way to it investigating alleged war crimes committed in the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza.

The 50-day war, which devastated the coastal enclave and left 2,251 dead on the Palestinian side, mostly civilians, and 74 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers, has already been the subject of a five-year preliminary ICC probe and a string of critical reports.

Here is a look at previous reports and probes into the war between the Jewish state and Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza:

ICC preliminary probe

In January 2015, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda launched a preliminary examination into whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant opening war crimes investigations into the conflict. The examination involved both Israeli and Palestinian actions.

That long-running probe looked at the 2014 war and later at violence near the Israel-Gaza border in 2018.

In December 2019, the prosecutor said she wanted to open a full investigation, having been “satisfied that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip”, without specifying the perpetrators of the alleged crimes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that position made the Hague-based court, which Israel has refused to sign up to since its creation in 2002, a “political tool” against the Jewish state.

Bensouda said she would first ask the ICC to make a jurisdictional ruling on the matter, due to “unique and highly contested legal and factual issues attaching to this situation”.

On Friday, the ICC ruled it had jurisdiction over the situation in “territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank”.

Netanyahu again slammed the court, calling the ruling “anti-Semitic”, while the Palestinians — who became a state party to the court in 2015 — hailed it as “victory for justice”.

UN reports

On June 23, 2015, a report by a UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict says it received “credible allegations” that both Israeli and Palestinian militants committed war crimes during the war.

The report followed a UN Security Council document published on April 27, 2015, that blamed the Israeli military for seven strikes on UN schools in Gaza that were used as shelters. Forty-four people were killed.

The independent experts who compiled the report also found that UN schools, while vacant at the time, were in three cases used to hide Palestinian weapons. In two of the cases, militants probably fired on Israeli soldiers from the establishments, the report found.

Rights groups

International human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, also accused both sides of war crimes.

In late 2014, London-based Amnesty said it documented eight instances in which Israeli forces attacked homes in Gaza “without warning”, killing at least 104 civilians, and alleged that the destruction of four multi-storey buildings late in the war breached international humanitarian law.

It also said “Palestinian armed groups also committed war crimes” in indiscriminately firing thousands of rockets into Israel, actions which left six civilians dead.

In May 2015, it accused Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, of war crimes against fellow Palestinians to “settle scores” during the war, notably the execution of at least 23 people.

US-based Human Rights Watch said in September 2014 that in three cases it examined, Israel caused “numerous civilian casualties in violation of the laws of war”.

The incidents were the separate shellings of two UN schools in northern Gaza on July 24 and 30, and a guided missile strike on another UN school in the southern city of Rafah on August 3.

The attacks killed a total of 45 people including 17 children, HRW said.

Israeli reports and investigations

Israel in June 2015 defended its conduct in the Gaza war as both “lawful” and “legitimate” in a detailed inter-ministerial report.

The authors acknowledged that “numerous civilians were caught in the hostilities”, but they added Israel “did not intentionally target civilians or civilian objects”.

Israeli military authorities carried out their own investigations into the conduct of their troops during the war and in April 2015 announced three soldiers had been charged with looting.

Kosovo Establishes Israel Ties, To Open Embassy In Jerusalem

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi gives a statement during a ceremony held over Zoom with his counterpart from Kosovo marking the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Kosovo, at the Israeli Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem on February 1, 2021. (Photo by menahem kahana / AFP)

 

Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic ties on Monday, with the Muslim-majority territory recognising Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital, putting it at odds with the rest of the Islamic world.

Israel has since August established ties with a four Arab states under a series of deals brokered by former US president Donald Trump, collectively known as the Abraham Accords.

But the majority-Muslim parties to those accords — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — have all said their diplomatic missions will be in Tel Aviv, in line with global consensus against recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until the Palestinian conflict is resolved.

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In exchange for setting up its mission in Jerusalem, Kosovo gets recognition from Israel, as it seeks to further legitimise its 2008 declaration of independence from its former war foe Serbia.

Because of coronavirus restrictions, officials on Monday signed joint declarations separately in Jerusalem and Pristina.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said the ceremony marked “the first time in history that diplomatic relationship are being established over Zoom”.

He added he had approved Kosovo’s “formal request to open an embassy in Jerusalem”.

– ‘Historical bond’ –

Kosovo’s top diplomat, Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla, thanked Israel for becoming the 117th country to recognise its independence, joining much of the Western world.

China, Russia and five European Union members have not granted recognition to Kosovo.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (L), mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, signs a joint declaration establishing ties with Kosovo during an official ceremony held over Zoom with his counterpart from Kosovo Meliza Haradinaj Stublla (screen), at the Israeli Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem on February 1, 2021. – Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic ties on February 1, with the Muslim-majority territory recognising Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital, putting it at odds with the rest of the Islamic world. (Photo by menahem kahana / AFP)

“Kosovo has waited for a very long time to establish diplomatic relations with Israel,” Haradinaj-Stublla said.

“We mark a new chapter in the historical bond between our two countries who have witnessed a long and challenging path to existing as a people and to becoming states,” she added.

Haradinaj-Stublla also thanked Trump, who announced in December 2017 that Washington would move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has said he does not intend to reverse the move.

But Biden’s presidential campaign indicated his administration would seek to reopen a mission in east Jerusalem to engage the Palestinians, who consider the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state.

– Serbia reaction –

In September, Trump announced at a summit originally organised to strike a deal between Kosovo and Serbia that Kosovo and the Jewish state would establish diplomatic ties.

But the most standout part of the summit was an announcement by Kosovo that it would mutually recognise Israel, and Serbia saying it would follow Washington’s lead in moving its embassy to Jerusalem.

So far, however, Serbia has failed to honour its pledge, with some officials claiming the deal was non-binding.

Ashkenazi said Israel was committed to working towards a “stable Balkans”, but Monday’s ceremony could have diplomatic consequences.

Briefing journalists this week, the head of the Balkans division at Israel’s foreign ministry, Dan Oryan, said recognition of Kosovo causes the Serbs significant “pain”.

In one of Europe’s most intractable disputes, Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence since the province broke away in the bloody 1998-99 war that was ended only by a NATO bombing campaign against Serb troops.

More than 13,000 people died in the war, mostly Kosovo Albanians, who form a majority in the former province.

The two sides have been in EU-led talks for a decade to normalise their relationship, but little progress has been made.

Israel Extends Nationwide COVID-19 Lockdown

A priest crosses a nearly deserted street during a lockdown imposed by the authorities in a bid to fight spread of the coronavirus in the centre of Jerusalem, on January 28, 2021.
Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

 

Israel’s nationwide lockdown was extended Monday to contain the coronavirus which has continued to spread rapidly as the country presses ahead with an aggressive vaccination campaign.   

The current lockdown, declared on December 27, is the third in the Jewish state since pandemic began last year.

The cabinet prolonged the closure until Friday morning, but scheduled a fresh meeting for Wednesday to assess whether a further extension was required, a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the health ministry said.

With Israel, a country of about 9 million people, still regularly registering more than 5,000 new cases per day, Netanyahu had pushed for the lockdown’s extension.

His political opponents said they would only agree if fines were increased for rule violators.

Netanyahu’s critics have particularly highlighted persistent violations among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews, the premier’s key political allies who have repeatedly disregarded public safety measures throughout the pandemic.

Hours before the cabinet approved the extension, thousands of ultra-Orthodox, many not wearing masks, flouted bans on large public gatherings by packing the streets of a Jerusalem neighbourhood for the funeral of a top rabbi while police looked on.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival in Israel’s caretaker government, said “this is what unequal enforcement looks like”, pledging an end to the “indulgence” of an ultra-Orthodox community that has defied the  rules.

Israel is heading to the polls again in March, the country’s fourth vote in less than two years.

Most political experts agree Netanyahu has no path to extend his record 11 years in power without backing from the main ultra-Orthodox parties.

– Flight ban –

Israel’s lockdown also includes an unprecedented airport and border closure, which Netanyahu has described as a necessary weapon in the “arms race” against coronavirus variants.

The cabinet has extended the ban on commercial flights imposed last month until February 7.

Road crossings to Egypt and Jordan will also remain closed.

Israel is attempting to repatriate nationals stuck abroad by the commercial flight shut down, but said Monday that those brought back to the country over the next week must quarantine in government-chosen hotels.

Israel has registered nearly 620,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 4,500 deaths.

It has also given at least one of the required of two Pfizer-made jabs to more than three million people, a pace widely described as the world’s fastest per capita.

Israel hopes to vaccinate its entire over-16 population by the end of March.

The Jewish state has also come under mounting international pressure to facilitate vaccinations for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, an Israel-blockaded territory controlled by Hamas Islamists.

-AFP

Israel To Send 5,000 Vaccine Doses To Palestinians

BETHESDA, MARYLAND – DECEMBER 14: SPC Angel Laureano holds a COVID-19 vaccine at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on December 14, 2020 in Bethesda, Maryland. Manuel Balce Ceneta-Pool/Getty Images/AFP

 

Israel’s defence ministry said Sunday that it would send 5,000 coronavirus vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority to inoculate medical personnel, following global calls for Israel to ensure Palestinians are vaccinated.

“I confirm we are going to send 5,000 vaccines to medical teams in the Palestinian Authority,” a spokesperson for Defence Minister Benny Gantz told AFP.

The Jewish state has launched an aggressive coronavirus vaccine campaign on Israeli territory, an effort widely regarded as the world’s fastest per capita.

More than three million of the country’s nine million people have received the first of two required jabs of the Pfizer vaccine.

Vaccinations have not yet begun in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory under Israeli military occupation since the 1967 Six Day War.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has not publicly asked for Israel’s help procuring vaccines against the virus.

The PA has however announced procurement agreements with four vaccine providers, including the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V.

The Palestine Liberation Organization has urged the international community “to hold Israel to account” and ensure that it provides vaccines to all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The United Nations and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have also called on Israel to help ensure that the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and two million in Gaza are inoculated against the virus.

Hamas, an Islamist group that controls the Gaza strip, is not likely to publicly collaborate with Israel on any vaccination effort.

Israel Prison Service To Vaccinate Palestinian Inmates

Graeme Robertson / AFP / POOL

 

The Israel Prison Service said Sunday it will begin vaccinating all incarcerated people against Covid-19, including Palestinians, following calls from right groups, Palestinian officials and Israel’s attorney general.

Israel has given at least one vaccine dose to more than two million of its citizens, a pace widely described as the world’s fastest per capita.

But the Jewish state faced harsh criticism when Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Palestinian prisoners would be the last to get inoculated.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to Ohana condemning the comment as “tainted with illegality”, Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper reported.

Israeli and global rights groups, including Amnesty International, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization have also issued public calls for Israel to vaccinate the estimated 4,400 Palestinians held in its jails.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, about 250 Palestinians in Israeli prisons have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

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Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced last week that the first vaccine doses would be distributed to prisons over the coming days.

The prison service issued a statement Sunday saying, “following the vaccination of staff… the vaccination of detainees will begin in prisons in accordance with medical and operational protocol established by the Prison Service”, adding later that prisoners would be vaccinated starting Monday.

A prison service spokesperson told AFP the directive applied to “all prisoners, without distinction”.

Reacting to the announcement, a spokesman for the Hamas Islamists, who control the Gaza Strip, said Israel “had an obligation to provide vaccines to prisoners”.

Human Rights Watch on Sunday also called on Israel to provide vaccinations for the 2.8 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the two million Palestinians in Israeli-blockaded Gaza.

Israel and Palestine director for HRW, Omar Shakir, particularly criticised the practice of vaccinating Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but not their Palestinian neighbours.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” Shakir said.

“Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity,” he added.

The Palestinian Authority has said it has signed contracts with four vaccine providers, including the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V.

The PA said it expects to have sufficient doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the Palestinian population, in both the West Bank and Gaza, with doses expected by mid-March.

Israeli Strikes On Syria Kill 23 – Monitor

 

Israeli night raids targeting arms depots and military positions in eastern Syria killed at least seven Syrian soldiers and 16 allied fighters, in the deadliest raids since 2018, a war monitor said Wednesday.

The Israeli air force carried out more than 18 strikes against multiple targets in an area stretching from the eastern town of Deir Ezzor to the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The raids killed seven Syrian soldiers and 16 non-Syrian militia fighters whose nationalities were not immediately known, the Britain-based monitoring group said.

Paramilitaries belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Fatimid Brigade, which is made up of pro-Iranian Afghan fighters, operate in the region, the Observatory said.

The raids also wounded 28 troops and militiamen, some of them critically.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment.

Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman called the Israeli raids the “deadliest since June 2018” when strikes on the same region killed at least 55 pro-government fighters, including Iraqis as well as Syrians.

In November, similar raids on eastern Syria killed at least 19 pro-Iran militia fighters, the monitor said.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported the latest strikes but gave few details.

“At 1:10 am (2310 GMT Tuesday), the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial assault on the town of Deir Ezzor and the Albu Kamal region,” SANA said, citing a military source.

“The results of the aggression are currently being verified,” it added.

It was the second wave of Israeli raids in Syria in less than a week.

The last strikes on January 7 targeted positions in southern Syria and in the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus, killing three pro-Iran fighters.

Israel routinely carries out raids in Syria, mostly against targets linked to Iran in what it says is a bid to prevent its arch foe from consolidating a foothold on its northern border.

Israel hit around 50 targets in Syria in 2020, according to an annual report released in late December by the Israeli military.

Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes on Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, targeting Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces as well as Syrian government troops.

Israel rarely acknowledges individual strikes but has done so when responding to what it describes as aggression inside Israeli territory.

The war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions more since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

AFP

Israel Completes Historic Flight To Morocco

A screen grab from a handout video released by the US embassy in Morocco shows US President's advisor Jared Kushner (L) and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat leaving the plane upon landing, in Moroco's capital Rabat, on December 22, 2020, on the first Israel-Morocco direct commercial flight, marking the latest US-brokered diplomatic normalisation deal between the Jewish state and an Arab country. US EMBASSY IN MOROCCO / AFP
A screengrab from a handout video released by the US embassy in Morocco shows US President’s advisor Jared Kushner (L) and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat leaving the plane upon landing, in Morocco’s capital Rabat, on December 22, 2020. US EMBASSY IN MOROCCO / AFP

 

The first Israel-Morocco direct commercial flight landed in the North African kingdom Tuesday to mark the latest US-brokered diplomatic normalisation deal between the Jewish state and an Arab country.

US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner was on board along with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat.

The US-Israeli delegation was welcomed at the airport by Moroccan officials, ahead of a programme that includes a meeting with King Mohammed VI at the royal palace, and a visit to the grave of Mohammed V.

The trip aimed to showcase the Trump administration’s achievements in Middle East diplomacy, weeks before Trump is replaced at the White House by President-elect Joe Biden.

Morocco became the third Arab state this year, after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to normalise ties with Israel under US-brokered deals, while Sudan has pledged to follow suit.

READ ALSO: Israeli PM Hails ‘Historic’ Morocco Normalisation Agreement

Speaking at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport before his departure, Kushner said Israel’s recent string of breakthrough deals marked a step towards a more normal co-existence between Jews and Muslims.

“The state we have lived in for the last 75 years, where Jews and Muslims have been separated, is not a natural state,” he said before getting on the plane which was painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace”.

Both sides expected to sign agreements paving the way for direct air links, and on water management, connecting their financial systems and on a visa waver arrangement for diplomats, said an Israeli official source.

Morocco has North Africa’s largest Jewish community of about 3,000 people, and Israel is home to 700,000 Jews of Moroccan origin.

Up to now, up to 70,000 Israeli tourists a year have visited Morocco, but they have had to travel via third countries.

Western Sahara

As part of the Morocco-Israel deal unveiled earlier this month, Trump fulfilled a decades-old goal of Rabat by backing its contested sovereignty in the disputed region of Western Sahara.

The move infuriated the Algerian-backed pro-independence Polisario Front, which controls about one fifth of the desert territory that was once a Spanish colony.

Negotiations included pledges to open a US consulate in Western Sahara, and for US investment which Moroccan media described as “colossal”.

Israel and Morocco are meanwhile due to reopen diplomatic offices.

Morocco closed its liaison office in Tel Aviv in 2000, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Mohammed VI has said Morocco will remain an advocate for the Palestinians.

Alongside the announcement of the resumption of relations with Israel on December 10, the king assured Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of Morocco’s “continued and sustained commitment to the just Palestinian cause”.

But the Palestinians — like the Polisario — have cried foul and condemned the normalisation announcement between Rabat and the Jewish state.

Two pro-Palestinian demonstrations were banned last week in Rabat, and about 30 groups and far-left parties Tuesday denounced the visit by the “Zionist delegation”, demanding Morocco “resist normalisation”.

‘Shared history’

Morocco has sought to temper the anger by insisting that relations with Israel are not new.

“The new agreement is merely the formalisation of a de facto partnership between Morocco and Israel dating back 60 years,” said Moroccan media boss Ahmed Charai.

“The two states have assisted each other vitally for decades,” Charai wrote, pointing to security cooperation in Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War and “quiet Moroccan diplomacy” that helped foster peace between Egypt and Israel.

Morocco is home to North Africa’s largest Jewish community, which dates back to ancient times and grew with the arrival of Jews expelled from Spain by Catholic kings from 1492.

It reached about 250,000 in the late 1940s, 10 percent of the national population, but many Jews left after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Under the rule of King Mohammed, several programmes have been launched to rehabilitate old Jewish districts, cemeteries and synagogues.

 

AFP

Israeli PM Netanyahu Receives COVID-19 Vaccine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country’s largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. AMIR COHEN / POOL / AFP

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a Covid-19 vaccine jab on Saturday, kicking off a national rollout over the coming days.

Netanyahu, 71, and Israel’s health minister were injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine live on TV at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv.

“I asked to be vaccinated first, together with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, to serve as personal examples and encourage you to be vaccinated,” Netanyahu told the television audience.

Each recipient must receive a booster shot in three weeks for optimal protection from the novel coronavirus.

Latest Israeli health ministry figures reported over 370,000 people had tested positive for the virus since the Jewish state, a country of around nine million, confirmed its first case in February.

Just over 3,000 people have died.

The vaccine will be rolled out at 10 hospitals and vaccination centres around Israel for healthcare workers from Sunday, according to the health ministry.

During the course of the week, a ministry statement said, vaccinations will be extended to the general public, starting with those aged over 60.

Netanyahu spent Monday to Friday in self-isolation after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient, despite testing negative for the virus on Sunday and again on Monday.

Ten days ago, he was at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport to welcome a first batch of the vaccine.

The shipment was the first of eight million doses Israel has ordered from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

The vaccine needs to be stored at the ultra-low temperature of -70 degrees Celsius (-94 Fahrenheit), posing handling and storage challenges.

Other countries have begun rolling out the vaccine already.

Britain started inoculating its citizens with the same vaccine on December 8.

It has since been approved by the United States, Canada and, on Saturday, Switzerland.

US Vice President Mike Pence got the jab live on television Friday, while President-elect Joe Biden is set to receive his shot on Monday.

President Donald Trump has made it clear he is not planning to take the vaccine imminently, citing the belief that his recovery from a brief but severe bout of Covid-19 has given him immunity.

Israel has also contracted to buy six million Covid-19 vaccine doses from US biotech firm Moderna, which are expected to be delivered in 2021, giving a total of 14 million shots.

Hug for grandma

Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown in September, when the country had one of the world’s highest per capita infection rates.

Restrictions have since been gradually eased, but case numbers are again on the rise, with a further clampdown predicted.

Netanyahu said receiving the vaccine was a first step toward a return to normality.

“On the way here I thought about the children worried about their parents, the grandchildren who want to hug grandma and grandpa — not a Zoom hug but a real hug,” he said.

“We will be able to go to football grounds, to see basketball games and, of course, to reopen the country and restore it to what it was, to go back to the normal life that we desire.”

The Palestinian territories have also seen a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority announced stricter restrictions, including the closure of schools and universities, for two weeks to combat the virus’ spread.

Last week, PA president Mahmud Abbas announced that Christmas mass in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born, would be closed to the public this year due to the pandemic.

The Israeli-occupied West Bank, with a Palestinian population of more than 2.8 million, has officially recorded over 88,000 coronavirus infections, including 869 deaths, according to the Palestinian health ministry’s Saturday update.

In the Gaza Strip, with around two million inhabitants, there have been over 33,000 cases, with 248 deaths.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has said that Israel might provide vaccinations for Palestinians once it has vaccinated its own priority groups, such as frontline health providers.

 

AFP