Several hundred Israelis demonstrated Saturday in Tel Aviv against new coronavirus restrictions and vaccines as positive cases and hospitalisations rose to levels not seen in months.
The health ministry reported Saturday that 2,435 new Covid cases had been recorded the day before — the highest number since March — driven by the more contagious Delta variant.
There were 326 hospitalisations, the highest since April, although well below the January peak, when more than 2,000 people were being hospitalised daily.
Israel has in recent days rolled out a booster vaccine shot for older citizens, reimposed mask requirements indoors and restored “green pass” restrictions requiring vaccine certificates for entering enclosed spaces such as gyms, restaurants and hotels.
The rise in infections is a step back after Israel’s world-leading vaccine campaign drove down new Covid-19 cases from 10,000 a day to fewer than 100.
Protesters Saturday flew a banner that read, “There’s no pandemic, it’s a con”. They held up placards denouncing coronavirus vaccines, with one poster linking vaccines to the Nazis.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told Israeli Channel 12 TV Saturday that he intended to balance public health with livelihood.
“The economy must remain open,” he said.
“I don’t want to impose a lockdown and I will avoid a lockdown at all costs. Everything is open — but we need masks and we need vaccines.”
Nearly 60 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million people have gotten two shots, mostly with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
But about one million Israelis still refuse to be vaccinated even though they are eligible.
From Sunday, some children between ages five and 11 at risk of health complications will become eligible for vaccines.
Israel will seek to drastically reduce its carbon emissions by 2050 to help combat the global climate crisis, the foreign ministry announced in a statement Friday.
The “revolutionary and historic decision” agreed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and several cabinet members will be put to a vote before Israel’s parliament on Sunday, it said.
“The Israeli government set to approve an unprecedented decision mandating that by the year 2050 Israel will move to a low carbon emissions economy, while dealing with the climate crisis that threatens all of humanity,” the statement added.
“In coordination with the Paris Agreement and Israel’s international climate commitments, and to prevent crossing the global warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, Israel is committed to reaching the goal of zero carbon emissions by the year 2050,” it added.
The ministers for environmental protection, foreign affairs, finance, energy, transport, economy and interior are pushing for the initiative along with Bennett.
The move calls for reducing carbon emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050 compared to 2015 levels, with an intermediary target of 27 percent by 2030.
“This is the first time that the Israeli government set joint national goals to reduce carbon emissions and declare a national strategy to move to a clean, efficient and competitive economy, thus aligning Israel with the other developed countries in the global fight against the climate crisis,” the statement said.
Israel signed the 2015 Paris climate accord, pledging to keep its carbon emissions stable until 2030.
Its 2050 plan includes targets for a 96 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in transportation, 85 percent in the electricity sector and 92 percent in municipal waste.
Israel on Sunday walked back part of its policy for third coronavirus vaccination shots, saying that contrary to a recent announcement, oncology patients should actually stick with two jabs only.
On Monday Israel began administering a third shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech inoculation to patients with compromised immune systems, including people who have had heart, lung and kidney transplants and some cancer patients.
But on Sunday, the health ministry said that after reviewing data on hundreds of patients from oncology wards, “the recommendation at this stage is to not vaccinate” cancer patients.
“Nearly 90 percent of the patients receiving chemotherapy developed antibodies following the (two doses of) vaccination, and the level of antibodies remained high a number of months after the vaccination,” it said in a “clarification” to the health funds and hospitals administering the shots.
“In addition, the vaccination could have side effects… that could affect the oncological treatment,” the ministry said.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said they would ask US and European authorities for permission to provide a third dose of their vaccine, but European regulators say it was too early to tell if a third was necessary.
The World Health Organization has expressed concern that such a booster shot could come at the expense of countries whose citizens have not yet received their first two doses.
Israel’s initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and helped to bring confirmed daily cases down to single digits last month.
It decided to go ahead with third shots in the light of evidence “that patients with immunosuppression do not develop an adequate antibody response after two doses” and after the number of daily cases began to rise.
A spokesman for Sheba medical centre, Israel’s largest hospital, told AFP that “dozens” of cancer patients have received a third shot since Monday.
Three Palestinians were killed early Thursday by Israeli special forces who were on an arrest mission in the northern West Bank, sources on both sides said.
One of the Palestinians killed was suspected of having carried out a shooting attack against Israeli soldiers, an Israeli security official said.
The other two were members of the Palestinian Authority security forces who witnessed the initial exchange of fire.
An Israeli security official told AFP that special forces were in Jenin seeking “to arrest two terrorists who had carried out a shooting attack”.
“One Palestinian who opened fire on the forces was shot dead,” he said.
The Palestinian health ministry identified him as Jamil al-Amuri.
According to the Israeli official, after the initial incident, Palestinians at the scene “opened fire on the Israeli forces,” and in an ensuing exchange, “two additional Palestinians were killed.”
Palestinian security officials identified the two as members of the Palestinian Authority’s military intelligence department, Adham Eleiwi and Taysir Issa.
No Israeli forces were wounded in the incident, the Israeli official told AFP.
A second Israeli security official told AFP Amuri was a member of the Islamic Jihad militant group who was suspected of carrying out a string of shooting attacks targeting Israeli soldiers in recent months.
Another Islamic Jihad member suspected of taking part in the attacks, Wissam Abu Zeid, was wounded in the same incident, the Israeli official said.
The Palestinian presidency condemned the Israeli operation, with spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina calling it a “violation of international law” that would bring a “dangerous escalation” in remarks carried by official news agency Wafa.
Israeli forces frequently carry out arrest raids in the occupied West Bank. On May 25, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian during one such raid near Ramallah.
Israeli airstrikes in central Syria killed at least 11 government troops and militiamen late Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The strikes were the first carried out by Israel in Syria since 11 days of heavy fighting with the Hamas rulers of Gaza ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21, the Britain-based war monitor said.
“At least seven army soldiers and four National Defence Forces militiamen were killed,” Observatory chief Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP, adding that all of the dead were Syrian.
The Observatory said the strikes targeted air force positions near the village of Khirbet al-Tin on the outskirts of Homs, as well as an arms depot belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Israeli air force carried out Tuesday evening strikes in several regions of Syria, in the capital Damascus as well as in Homs, Hama and Latakia provinces, the Observatory said.
Syria’s state SANA news agency said there had been “explosions in Damascus” as Israeli forces carried out the raid from Lebanese air space.
It said air defences had been activated against the “Israeli aggression”, but said nothing about any casualties or damage.
The Israeli army, which rarely acknowledges individual strikes on Syria, declined to comment on “reports in the foreign media”.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes on Syrian territory, targeting government positions as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Israel has said repeatedly that it will not allow neighbouring Syria to become a launchpad for its arch-foe Iran.
Israel alleged Tuesday that a Gaza media building it destroyed was used by Hamas to jam air defenses as it offered to help the Associated Press rebuild its bureau.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, gave the most detailed explanation yet of the decision to strike the tower as he met the head of the news agency, Gary Pruitt, at its New York headquarters.
“The unit was developing an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defense system,” Erdan said, referring to the anti-missile shield that intercepts Hamas rockets.
He praised the role of the Associated Press, one of the world’s major news agencies along with Agence France-Presse and Reuters, and said he did not imagine AP employees were aware of the alleged use of the building by Hamas.
“Israel did everything it could to make sure that no employees or civilians were hurt during this important operation,” he said in a statement released a day after his meeting with AP executives.
“In contrast, Hamas is a genocidal terrorist organization that has no regard for the press. It purposely places its terror machine in civilian areas, including in offices being used by international media outlets,” he said.
Erdan said that Israel is “willing to assist” the Associated Press in rebuilding its office in Gaza, which is controled by Hamas, a militant Islamist group.
The AP and international media rights groups earlier called for an independent investigation into allegations that the Jala Tower building was used by Hamas.
The air strike also destroyed the office of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network that has frequently irritated both Israel and Arab states with its coverage.
The owner of the Jala Tower had unsuccessfully pleaded for 10 extra minutes to let Al Jazeera retrieve its equipment but an Israeli officer rejected the request and went ahead with the strike.
The attack came during a May 10-21 military escalation, with Hamas firing rockets into Israel in response to what it considered provocations in Jerusalem against the Palestinian population.
Israeli strikes killed 260 Palestinians, including 66 children adn some fighters, and wounded more than 1,900 people, the Gaza health ministry says.
Rockets and other fire from Gaza killed 13 people in Israel, including a child and an Arab-Israeli teenager and an Israeli soldier, medics and the military say. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded.
Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid said he had succeeded in forming a broad-based coalition to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving leader.
Should it be confirmed by the 120-member Knesset legislature in the coming days, it would end the long reign of the hawkish right-wing leader known as Bibi, who has long dominated Israeli politics.
Lapid’s announcement late Wednesday came in the final hour before a midnight deadline, following marathon negotiations with a group of parties spanning the political spectrum, united only in their desire to oust Netanyahu.
“I succeeded,” Lapid, a former TV news anchor, wrote on Facebook. “I promise that this government will work in the service of all of the citizens of Israel, those who voted for it and those who did not.”
The right-wing nationalist tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, 49, would serve first as prime minister in a rotation agreement, with Lapid to take over after two years.
“With the help of God we will do together what is good for Israel and we’ll get Israel back on track,” Bennett told Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin after Lapid had informed Rivlin of their coalition.
The opposition leader and his partners now have at least a week before lawmakers must vote to confirm their government -– a period during which Netanyahu and his Likud party are expected to try to do what they can to prevent it.
Should last-minute defections scupper the “change” alliance, Israel would likely have to hold yet another election, the fifth in just over two years.
Down to the wire
Lapid, who heads the secular centrist party Yesh Atid, last Sunday won the crucial support of Bennett, head of the Yamina “Rightward” party.
To build the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Lapid had to sign individual agreements with seven parties.
They include the hawkish New Hope party of Netanyahu’s former ally Gideon Saar and right-wing secular nationalist Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party.
Also part of the alliance is the Labor party, the dovish Meretz party, and the centrist Blue and White party of Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who unsuccessfully challenged Netanyahu in three previous votes.
Gantz, who tweeted it was a “night of great hope,” headed to Washington for pre-scheduled talks Thursday on Iran with US officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The change alliance also includes the Arab Israeli Islamic conservative party Raam, whose head Mansour Abbas late Wednesday announced that he had joined in order to secure funding and policies to benefit Israel’s 20 percent minority of Palestinian descent.
“I just signed an agreement with Yair Lapid so that he can declare that he can form a government after reaching… agreements on various issues that serve the interest of Arab society,” he said.
Other Arab lawmakers supported the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin from outside his coalition in the 1990s, but Abbas was the first Arab politician in Israel to openly bargain for a role in the coalition, said political analyst Afif Abu Much.
Abu Much noted that lawmakers with other parties representing Arab citizens of Israel announced they would oppose the government headed by Bennett, a strong supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
‘Fraud of century’
Lapid was tasked with forming a government after Netanyahu failed to put together his own coalition following March elections, the fourth inconclusive vote in less than two years.
In an editorial, The Jerusalem Post warned that “the hard part is just beginning” for the disparate coalition but said it “has a chance to really change Israel for the better” after years of political turmoil.
Wednesday night’s deal deepens the woes of Netanyahu, 71, who is on trial for criminal charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust while in office — accusations he denies.
If he loses power, he will not be able to push through changes to basic laws that could give him immunity and will lose control over certain justice ministry nominations.
The premier, who served an earlier three-year term in the 1990s, has long been the dominant figure of Israeli politics and was close to former US President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu clinched historic normalisation agreements with four Arab states and unrolled a hugely successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
But he has not engaged in substantive peace talks with the Palestinians, who have been angered by Israel’s deepening control of areas they eye for a future state.
Escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians last month spiralled into a deadly 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli airstrikes.
Netanyahu defiantly condemned the alliance against him as “the fraud of the century” last Sunday, warning that it would result in “a left-wing government dangerous to the state of Israel”.
Israel elected the even-keeled Labor veteran Isaac Herzog as its 11th president Wednesday, a parliamentary vote that coincidentally fell as opposition lawmakers scrambled to forge a coalition to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu.
Herzog, 60, beat former headmistress Miriam Peretz to replace President Reuven Rivlin, who was elected in 2014 to the largely ceremonial position.
Wednesday’s presidential vote came as Israeli politicians from across the spectrum were holding 11th-hour negotiations to cobble together a new administration aimed at ending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 12 straight years in office.
The Israeli presidency exerts little power, primarily meeting with party leaders after legislative elections and tasking candidates with forming governments. It is the country’s prime minister who wields actual executive authority.
But the president does have the ability to grant pardons — a potentially important function as Netanyahu faces trial for alleged fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Herzog, who will assume his position on July 9, succeeded over Peretz, 67, a former headmistress who lost two children in Israel’s wars and is known as “the mother of sons”.
The scion of one of Israel’s most prestigious families, Herzog was first elected to parliament in 2003 but was most recently leading the para-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, an organisation focused on relations with Jewish immigrants and the diaspora.
His election on the day that could see Netanyahu’s rivals make moves to take him down is fitting: in 2015 Herzog carried out a bid to oust the premier, presenting himself as a modest, diplomatic contrast to the bombastic “Bibi”.
The son of Chaim Herzog — Israel’s sixth president and a former ambassador to the United Nations — and nephew of the famed diplomat and statesman Abba Eban, the new president supports the two-state solution to the conflict with Palestinians.
During his 2015 campaign, he vowed to relaunch a peace process, even saying he was prepared to “remove” Israeli settlements if necessary.
Israeli and Egyptian officials held talks in both countries Sunday aimed at bolstering the Cairo-brokered ceasefire that ended the latest deadly flare-up of violence between the Jewish state and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Jerusalem to discuss “strengthening cooperation” between their countries, Netanyahu’s office said.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tasked Kamel and his delegation, who were also to visit the occupied Palestinian Territories, with hammering out a permanent ceasefire deal, senior Egyptian security officials told AFP.
On the same day, Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi made the first official visit by an Israeli top diplomat to neighbouring Egypt in 13 years, for talks with his counterpart Sameh Shoukry.
Ashkenazi tweeted on his arrival that they would “discuss establishing a permanent ceasefire with Hamas, a mechanism for providing humanitarian aid and the reconstruction of Gaza with a pivotal role played by the international community”.
The Egyptian foreign ministry tweeted that the ministers’ talks were “part of Egypt’s relentless and continued efforts to revive the peace track and to build on the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was also expected in Cairo for talks, senior Egyptian security officials said, without providing further details.
Egypt played a pivotal role in negotiating the May 21 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that brought an end to 11 days of deadly fighting.
Israeli strikes on Gaza killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children, health officials said.
Rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, medics said.
Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s demand “for the prompt return” of Israelis being held in the Gaza Strip, according to the statement.
Ashkenazi also said Israel was “fully committed” to repatriating Israeli prisoners held by Hamas.
Since Israel’s 2014 invasion of the Gaza Strip, the Islamist group has held the bodies of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, although Hamas has never confirmed their deaths.
Hamas is also believed to be holding two Israeli citizens who entered Gaza alone and whose families say they have mental health issues.
Israel is meanwhile holding more than 5,000 Palestinians in its jails.
Sisi has pledged $500 million to help reconstruction efforts in the densely populated Gaza enclave, which was pummelled by Israeli air strikes.
Hamas has pledged not to touch “a single cent” of international aid to rebuild Gaza.
Israel, which has enforced a land and maritime blockade on the enclave since 2007, accuses the group of diverting international aid to military ends.
The statement from Netanyahu’s office said he and Kamel also discussed “mechanisms and processes to prevent the strengthening of Hamas and its use of the resources that will be directed to the civilian population in the future”.
The latest violent flare-up was sparked by increased tensions in Jerusalem, including over Israeli security forces cracking down on Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.
A bitter divide between Hamas and Fatah has long plagued Palestinian politics, but analysts say the latest escalation has served to unite the geographically fragmented Palestinian community in a way not seen in years.
Sisi also tasked Kamel with working to help iron out political divisions between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Egyptian officials said.
The UN Human Rights Council decided Thursday to create an open-ended international investigation into violations surrounding the latest Gaza violence.
It said it would also look at the “underlying root causes of recurrent tensions and instability, including systematic discrimination” in the occupied Palestinian Territories and inside Israel.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet voiced particular concern about the “high level of civilian fatalities and injuries” from the bombing of Gaza and warned the Israeli strikes on the enclave “may constitute war crimes”.
Israelis waited Sunday to see whether nationalist hardliner Naftali Bennett would agree to join a governing coalition that could end the rule of the country’s longest-serving leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lawmakers opposed to right-wing Netanyahu were in intense talks ahead of a Wednesday deadline, as a ceasefire held following the latest deadly military conflict with Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu, 71, who faces trial on fraud, bribery and breach of trust charges which he denies, has clung to power through a period of political turmoil that has seen four inconclusive elections in under two years.
After a March vote in which Netanyahu’s Likud party gained the most seats but again failed to form a government, former TV anchor Yair Lapid is now trying to build a rival coalition.
Centrist Lapid has until Wednesday 11:59 pm local time (2059 GMT) to build a coalition of at least 61 deputies, a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
The 57-year-old is seeking to forge a diverse alliance the Israeli media has dubbed a bloc for “change”, which would include Bennett as well as Arab-Israeli lawmakers.
In his determination to bring down the hawkish prime minister, Lapid has offered to share power and let Bennett, 49, serve the first term in a rotating premiership.
Bennett was expected to speak Sunday evening after a meeting with his party, a spokeswoman said.
Netanyahu, in office for 12 consecutive years after an earlier three-year term, tried to cling to power Sunday by offering his own, last-ditch power-sharing agreement to several former allies including Bennett.
He warned that Israel would otherwise be ruled by a dangerous “left-wing” alliance.
A Lapid government would also include the centrist Blue and White party of Benny Gantz and the hawkish New Hope party of Netanyahu’s former ally Gideon Saar.
Avigdor Lieberman’s pro-settlement Yisrael Beitenu party as well as historically powerful Labour and the dovish Meretz party would also join.
The shaky arrangement would the backing of some Arab-Israeli lawmakers of Palestinian descent in order to pass a confirmation vote in parliament.
The intense talks follow weeks of escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, including a deadly 11-day exchange of rocket fire from Gaza and devastating Israeli airstrikes.
The war with Hamas that ended with a May 21 truce, as well as tensions in the occupied West Bank and in mixed Jewish-Arab towns in Israel, initially appeared to leave Netanyahu more likely to hold onto power.
But political scientist Gayil Talshir at Hebrew University told AFP on Sunday that Israel was now “closer than ever” to a coalition of change, adding that “Netanyahu is in a desperate position”.
Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats in the March elections but failed to form a governing coalition after his far-right partners refused to sit with Arab factions or receive their support.
Lapid, whose party won 17 seats, was then given four weeks to form a government.
Netanyahu had previously pushed for yet another election, which would be the fifth since April 2019.
“Now that he sees a change coalition may be announced this evening or tomorrow, he has to move forward with a more serious deal,” Talshir told AFP.
On Sunday Netanyahu offered a rotation agreement to Bennett and Saar. But Saar on Twitter said he remained committed to “replacing the Netanyahu regime”.
Netanyahu in a video then called on Saar and Bennett to “come now, immediately” to meet him and join a three-way rotation government, warning they were “in crucial moment for the security, character and future of the state of Israel”.
Lapid’s “change” coalition also still faced several obstacles.
Some right-wing lawmakers object to a partnership with politicians from Israel’s Arab minority, around a fifth of the population.
The recent Gaza conflict sparked inter-communal clashes between Jewish and Arab Israelis in mixed cities.
Arab politicians have also been divided about joining a government headed by Bennett, who supports expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians hope to create a future state.
Even with support from an Arab party, a new coalition in Israel is unlikely to reverse years of Israeli settlement construction or bring peace any time soon with Hamas in Gaza.
If the anti-Netanyahu camp does not manage to form a government on time, a majority of 61 lawmakers could vote to ask the president to name a new premier.
Another scenario would be for the country to gear up for yet another general election — Israel’s fifth in a little more than two years.