Israel Police In Standoff With Palestinians Over Jerusalem Eviction

Israeli forces keep watch as they prepare to evict a land in Jerusalem’s east district of Sheikh Jarrah on January 17, 2022 to build a school at the area. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

 

Israeli police were in a standoff Monday with a Palestinian man who carried a gas canister onto the roof of his home in a Jerusalem flashpoint district as his family faced eviction.

Israeli media reported that Mohammed Salhiya had threatened to set himself on fire if the eviction order from Sheikh Jarrah area of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem was carried out.

Salhiya’s family has been facing an eviction threat since 2017, when the land where his home sits was allocated for school construction.

Police and the Jerusalem municipality said in a joint statement delegates went to the home early Monday to carry out an eviction order after the Salhiyas ignored “countless opportunities” to vacate the land as ordered.

“We’ve been in this home since the 1950s,” said Salhiya family member Abdallah Ikermawi from the roof of the home.

“We don’t have anywhere to go,” he said in quotes provided by the Sheikh Jarrah Committee organisation, adding that the family was made up of 15 people, including children.

An 11-day Gaza war between Israel and the Palestinians erupted last year, fuelled by anger in Sheikh Jarrah where families battled eviction orders.

READ ALSO: China Cancels Plans To Sell Olympic Tickets To Public

Police said their “negotiators” were at the Salhiya home after several residents of the house “began to fortify themselves with a gas canister and other flammable material”.

Witnesses told AFP that clashes between security forces and locals erupted after the police arrived but later eased.

Hundreds of Palestinians are facing evictions from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and other east Jerusalem neighbourhoods.

Circumstances surrounding the evictions threats vary.

– ‘Plenty of space’ –

In some cases, Jewish Israelis have mounted legal challenges to claim the land they say was illegally taken during the war that coincided with Israel’s founding in 1948.

Palestinians have rejected these claims, saying their homes were legally purchased from Jordanian authorities who controlled east Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967.

Seven Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah have taken their legal challenges against their eviction threats to Israel’s Supreme Court. The Salhiyas are not in that group.

Jerusalem City councillor Laura Wharton, who was at the scene and due to meet the Salhiya family later Monday, criticised the municipality’s actions.

“They could have built the schools in the same plot without moving the families. There is plenty of space,” she said.

“The sad thing is this is the municipality itself doing this, it’s not some right wing settlers.”

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it, in a move not recognised by the international community.

More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have since moved into the area, fuelling tensions with Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Israel Begins Fourth COVID-19 Jab For Over 60s, Health Workers

Staff volunteers queue to receive a fourth dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, on December 27, 2021, as the Israeli hospital conducted a trial of the vaccine’s fourth jab on staff volunteers.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Israel began Monday administering fourth Covid vaccine shots to people over 60 and health workers amid a surge driven by the Omicron variant.

Health workers at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv lined up for the shot and over-60s received it at the nearby branch of Clalit, Israel’s largest health fund.

The shot was given to those who received their third inoculation at least four months ago.

The health ministry on Sunday approved the fourth shot for the over-60s and medical staff, two days after those with weakened immunity started to take the shot, making Israel one of the first countries to do so.

The health ministry on Monday reported 6,562 new Covid infections over the previous day, nearly double the daily average of last week.

In an address late Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that cases could soon surge to around “50,000 cases per day”.

More than four million people out of Israel’s population of 9.2 million have received three shots of coronavirus vaccine.

A total of almost 1.4 million cases of Covid infection, including 8,244 deaths, have been officially recorded in Israel.

Israel Receives First Shipment Of Pfizer Anti-COVID Drug

PHOTO USED TO ILLUSTRATE THE STORY: Staff volunteers queue to receive a fourth dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, on December 27, 2021, as the Israeli hospital conducted a trial of the vaccine’s fourth jab on staff volunteers. PHOTO: JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Israel received Thursday the first shipment of Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hailing it as critical amid a surge of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant.

“Thanks to our rapid action, the drugs have arrived in Israel quickly and will assist us in getting past the peak of the coming Omicron wave,” Bennett said.

The US Food and Drug Administration last week authorised Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill for high-risk people aged 12 and up.

In trials, the treatment has been shown to reduce Covid hospitalisations and deaths by 88 percent among at-risk people.

READ ALSO: WHO Warns Of ‘Very High’ Omicron Risk As COVID-19 Cases Surge Worldwide

The pills landed in Israel as coronavirus infections are surging.

Health authorities reported nearly 4,000 new cases Wednesday, a high not seen since September.

The oral treatments block the virus’ ability to replicate and should withstand variants, experts say.

Until now, the main treatments for Covid have been synthetic antibodies or Gilead’s antiviral remdesivir, which are administered by infusion.

The United States has paid $5.3 billion for 10 million courses of Pfizer’s new treatment, as well as $2.2 billion for treatment from rival Merck, whose pill appears to be less effective.

The European Union’s drug regulator has also allowed member states to use Pfizer’s Covid medications ahead of formal approval as an emergency measure.

Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on Covid-19, said the drug could “dramatically reduce risk of severe illness, potentially thus also reducing the overall hospital burden”.

He said the medications were “a critical element” in mitigating Omicron “in addition to vaccines and masks.”

On Monday an Israeli hospital began a trial of a fourth vaccine booster shot ahead of a potential national rollout of additional doses.

Some 4.2 million Israelis out of a population of 9.4 citizens have gotten three shots of coronavirus vaccine.

AFP

Israeli Air Strike Hits Syrian Port Of Latakia

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows firefighters battling the blaze at Syria’s Latakia port after an Israeli airstrike early on December 28, 2021. AFP

 

An Israeli airstrike hit Syria’s Latakia port on Tuesday, the second such attack on the key facility this month, according to Syrian state media.

Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Israel has routinely carried out airstrikes on its strife-torn neighbour, mostly targeting Syrian government troops as well as allied Iran-backed forces and Hezbollah fighters.

“At around 03:21 AM, the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial aggression with several missiles from the direction of the Mediterranean… targeting the container yard in Latakia port,” Syrian state news agency SANA cited a military source as saying.

The strike caused “significant material damage” and led to fires, it added.

Asked about the strike, an Israeli army spokesman said: “We don’t comment on reports in foreign media”.

Firefighters battle the blaze at Syria’s Latakia port after an Israeli airstrike early on December 28, 2021. AFP

 

On December 7, Israel carried out strikes on an Iranian arms shipment at Latakia, located in President Bashar al-Assad’s western Syrian heartland, without causing any casualties.

That earlier attack, which was the first on the facility since the start of the war, triggered a series of explosions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor with a wide network of sources in Syria.

In November, three soldiers and two Syrian fighters affiliated with Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah were killed in Israeli strikes, according to the monitoring group.

While the Jewish state rarely comments on individual strikes it carries out on its northern neighbour — with which it is officially at war — it has confirmed hundreds since 2011.

According to a report by the Israeli army, it hit around 50 targets in Syria in 2020.

In the deadliest operation since the strikes began, Israel killed 57 regime force members and allied fighters in eastern Syria overnight on January 13, 2021.

The Israeli military has repeatedly defended the operations as a bid to prevent its archfoe Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows containers on fire at Syria’s Latakia port after an Israeli airstrike early on December 28, 2021. AFP

 

Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva, has accused Iran of “continuing to promote subversion and terror” in the Middle East.

In a shadow war, Israel has targeted Iran’s military sites in Syria and also carried out a sabotage campaign in Iran against its nuclear programme.

Tehran has been a key supporter of the Syrian government in the decade-old conflict.

It finances, arms and commands a number of Syrian and foreign militia groups fighting alongside the regular armed forces, chief among them Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah group.

The conflict in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations.

AFP

Large Israel Bird Flu Outbreak Kills 2,000 Wild Cranes

Gray Cranes fly above the northern Israeli Hula valley, an important point on their migratory path towards Africa, on December 26, 2021. – A bird flu outbreak has killed more than 2,000 wild cranes on a reserve in northern Israel, an unusually high toll for the seasonal flu, the parks authority said today. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

 

A bird flu outbreak has killed more than 2,000 wild cranes on a reserve in northern Israel, an unusually high toll for the seasonal flu, the parks authority said Sunday.

In addition to the 2,000 dead, another 10,000 are believed to be infected, Ohad Hatsofe, a specialist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told AFP.

The virus affects Israel annually, but this year’s outbreak is much larger than previous years, said Uri Naveh, a senior scientist at the authority.

Naveh described the number of dead cranes as “exceptional”.

Like every year, roughly 100,000 wild cranes reached Israel since October, most stopping in the Hula Valley, an important point on their migratory path towards Africa.

More than 40,000 cranes are estimated to have remained in the area.

The avian flu ravaging the population, H5N1, has been detected in some chicken populations in northern Israel, Israel’s agriculture ministry said.

The ministry has suspended egg sales from affected farms.

It is rare for H5N1 to spread among humans, but there have been past outbreaks.

According to the World Health Organization H5N1 has killed more than 450 people, mainly in Indonesia, Egypt and Vietnam, since 2003.

COVID-19: Israel To Ban Travel To US 

In this file photo taken on November 01, 2021 passengers walk with their luggage upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport near Lod, as Israel reopens to tourists vaccinated against Covid-19
JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Israel’s health ministry Sunday recommended banning Israelis from travelling to the United States and added several European countries to its Covid “red list”, aimed at containing the Omicron variant’s spread. 

Barring US travel for Israeli citizens and residents would mark a significant step for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, given the hundreds of thousands of dual nationals and close ties between the countries.

Bennett said Israel was in the midst of its fifth wave of Covid-19.

“The Omicron variant is already here,” he told a press conference after a cabinet meeting, “and it’s spreading fast”.

READ ALSO: Paris Cancels New Year Fireworks Over Omicron Fears

Speaking earlier, Bennett reiterated that he would continue to restrict travel in order to avoid further lockdowns.

He said Israel had gained “precious time” by curbing travel immediately after the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa last month.

“European countries are either in lockdown or are heading that way,” he said, stressing that for Israel “time is running out”.

Lawmakers on Sunday approved an earlier health ministry recommendation to bar Israeli citizens and residents from travelling to France, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Finland, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

Britain and Denmark were already on the red list, as was most of Africa.

In addition to the US, the health ministry recommended that Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey be red-listed, guidance that is awaiting approval from the government and lawmakers.

Israeli citizens and residents who are already abroad when a country is declared red must quarantine for a week after returning home.

Non-resident foreigners from all countries are barred from entry unless they have special permission.

Bennett called on Israelis to work from home and encouraged parents to vaccinate their children.

“Our goal is to brave this wave without it affecting the economy and education as much as possible,” he said.

“The way to achieve that is by slowing down the infection rate, and vaccinating Israeli children in the meantime as quickly as possible.”

Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on Covid-19, told AFP the travel rules were allowing for most life to continue as usual inside Israel.

“The more strict you are in preventing importation and delaying local transmission, the more lax you can be in disturbing the economy and everyday life,” he said.

Balicer estimated that Israel would ease its restrictions once local transmission of Omicron began to rise, reducing the relative proportion of cases coming in from overseas.

He said it was not yet clear if the strain posed a risk of severe illness and death.

More than 4.1 million of Israel’s estimated 9.3 million people have received three shots of a coronavirus vaccine, with the country currently giving jabs to children aged 5-11.

AFP

Israel’s PM Meets UAE Crown Prince At Palace In Abu Dhabi

A handout picture released by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) shows Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan (R) receiving Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following his arrival in the Emirati capital, on December 12, 2021.  GPO / AFP

 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met Abu Dhabi’s crown prince on Monday after becoming the first leader of the Jewish state to visit the United Arab Emirates, a year after the establishment of ties.

Bennett met Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at his private palace, Israeli officials said, following the premier’s arrival in the Emirati capital late on Sunday.

His visit comes just over a year after the wealthy Gulf state broke with decades of Arab consensus and forged diplomatic ties under a series of US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords.

Israel is also making a diplomatic push against renewed international talks with Iran, its arch-foe, over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.

Bennett, who was expected to focus on trade links, according to his spokesperson, said his visit reflected a “new reality” for the region.

“In my opinion, this is… the new reality this region is witnessing, and we are working together to ensure a better future for our children,” he told the UAE’s official WAM news agency.

The volume of mutual trade had grown within a few months, “with limitless future opportunities to develop it,” he added.

“Israel, like the UAE, is a regional hub for trade. Our cooperation provides unprecedented economic opportunities not only for us, but for more countries.”

Bennett was also scheduled to meet the UAE’s technology and transport ministers during his visit, Israeli officials said.

While he is the first Israeli prime minister to visit the UAE, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made a landmark trip in June, opening an embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai.

The UAE opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in July.

AFP

Israel Closes Borders To All Foreigners Over Omicron

File photo of Isreal’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’.

 

Israel on Sunday decided to close its borders to foreign tourists and re-authorise a controversial cellphone tracking programme in a bid to stem the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

“The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a statement, adding that the measure would take effect on Sunday evening.

Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine themselves for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not.

It was only four weeks ago that Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid.

The measure were decided by a cabinet committee tasked with overseeing Israel’s Covid response.

READ ALSO: UK To Enforce New COVID-19 Rules From Tuesday

Bennett’s government has also re-activated a controversial programme initiated under his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu early in the pandemic that allows the powerful Shin Bet internal security agency to track cellphones as a viral containment measure.

Tracking “will be in order to locate verified (Omicron) cases and thereby cut the chains of infection,” Bennett’s office said, adding the programme will take effect on Thursday.

The tracking “is restricted only to verified cases of the new strain.

“There will be no widespread and sweeping use for all verified cases as was done in previous waves,” it added, stressing the Shin Bet will also not monitor quarantine violations.

‘Red Flag’

The Shin Bet tracking programme faced legal challenges from civil liberties groups after its introduction last year, before it was halted.

The government’s latest announcement came as Jews mark the start at sundown of the eight-day-long Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

It already imposed a series of emergency measures late Friday to protect its heavily vaccinated population after identifying a case of the new Covid-19 variant.

The health ministry said the new strain that was first detected by South Africa was discovered in a person who had arrived from Malawi.

Other suspected cases are currently being traced, authorities have said.

Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant — now dubbed Omicron — with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta or three for Beta.

The strain was of “serious concern” and had been blamed for a surge in infections, the authorities in South Africa said.

It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, as well as in Belgium.

The new variant “is concerning and has the potential to be very dangerous. We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prome Minister Naftali Bennett said late Friday.

He said Israel would order 10 million PCR test kits.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year, thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

Its initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and more than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.

Omicron Virus Forces Israel To Shut Borders To Foreigners

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gives an address in Jerusalem on June 13, 2021. AFP

 

Israel is to close its borders to all foreigners later Sunday in a bid to stem the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, authorities said.

“The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement, adding that the measure would take effect on Sunday evening.

Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine themselves for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not.

It was only four weeks ago that Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid.

The measure were decided by a cabinet committee tasked with overseeing Israel’s Covid response and must be approved by the whole cabinet on Sunday morning.

The government’s latest announcement came just hours before the start at sundown of the eight-day-long Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

It already imposed a series of emergency measures late Friday to protect its heavily vaccinated population after identifying a case of the new Covid-19 variant.

The health ministry said the new strain that was first detected by South Africa — known as B.1.1.529 — was discovered in a person who had arrived from Malawi.

Two more suspected cases have been detected in people returning from abroad, it said, adding that all three, who had been vaccinated, were placed in quarantine. The government later announced another suspected case.

Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta or three for Beta.

The strain was of “serious concern” and had been blamed for a surge in infections, the authorities in South Africa said.

It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, as well as in Belgium.

The new variant “is concerning and has the potential to be very dangerous. We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prome Minister Naftali Bennett said late Friday.

He said Israel would order 10 million PCR test kits.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year, thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

Its initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and more than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.

Israel Vaccinates Children As Young As Five To Combat ‘Children’s Wave’

Israeli boy Yoav, 9, smiles after receiving a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Meuhedet Healthcare Services Organisation in Tel Aviv on November 22, 2021, as Israel begins coronavirus vaccination campaign for 5 to 11-year-olds. PHOTO: JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Israel began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines for children aged five to 11 on Monday, becoming one of a handful of countries to inoculate children so young as it seeks to ward off another pandemic wave.

Over the summer, the Jewish state experienced an upsurge in coronavirus infections, fuelled by the Delta variant, and launched one of the earliest campaigns for booster shots.

As infections start to creep up again, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said the country is experiencing a “children’s wave” with about half of the recently confirmed cases among children below the age of 11, he wrote on Facebook.

Authorities had already begun immunising those aged 12 to 17 but decided to lower the age threshold in the wake of trials by Pfizer and recommendations from a panel of Israeli scientists.

READ ALSO: Taliban Tells Afghan TV Stations To Stop Airing Shows With Women Actors

While the campaign for younger minors was set to officially start Tuesday, doses were already being administered by Monday night, an AFP team in Tel Aviv found.

“Right now during the epidemic, the best tool to protect our children is vaccination,” said Heli Nave from outside a clinic giving the Pfizer-BioNTech jabs to children.

She said “it is not an easy decision at all” but the availability of data from the United States — which started immunising five-to-11-year-olds earlier this month — had convinced her.

The prime minister is scheduled to have his own youngest son vaccinated on Tuesday morning, his office announced.

Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

More than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.

AFP

Israeli Ex-PM Netanyahu Back In Court For Corruption Trial

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) arrives for a court hearing on corruption charges, on November 16, 2021 in Jerusalem. JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s graft trial resumed Tuesday, with his ex-spin doctor due on the witness stand, but the defence has asked the highly-anticipated testimony be delayed.

Netanyahu, now opposition leader in parliament after he was ousted by a broad coalition of rivals in June, arrived at the Jerusalem courthouse without the large security contingent and crowds of rival protesters that were on hand when he appeared as premier.

READ ALSO: Tigray Conflict: Scores Of Children In Hospitals Die Of Starvation

He has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate indictments that collectively accuse him of accepting improper gifts and illegally trading regulatory favour with media moguls in exchange for positive coverage.

Netanyahu (C) arrives an Israeli court for a hearing on corruption charges, on November 16, 2021 in Jerusalem. JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

The testimony of his former spokesman Nir Hefetz was expected to shed light on the ex-premier’s dealings with the Bezeq telecommunications group.

In the Bezeq case, considered the most serious, Netanyahu is accused of offering regulatory benefits that could have been worth millions to the company in return for politically advantageous coverage on the group’s Walla news site.

Netanyahu’s lawyers argued they were unprepared to respond to Hefetz’s testimony following recent press revelations about the evidence he might share.

The prosecution has said that while it regrets the recent leaks about Hefetz’s expected evidence, his testimony should go ahead.

Israel Opens To Vaccinated Tourists After 20 Months Of Closure

Visitors walk by the Edicule, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, on November 1, 2021, as Israel reopens to tourists vaccinated against Covid-19. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

 

Israel opened up to vaccinated visitors Monday after 20 months of closure, with Jews and Palestinians reliant on tourism voicing cautious hope the pandemic’s economic devastation will gradually ease.

Rami Razouk, a Palestinian souvenir shop owner in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem’s Old City, said he was “very happy” at the prospect of increased revenue, but conceded his store was not quite ready for an influx.

“Everything is dusty,” the 35-year-old told AFP. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Razouk and top Israeli officials said that Monday marked a partial re-opening, and that it would be premature to immediately expect busloads of tourists to start spending across the region.

“We are far from the (complete) opening of the skies,” Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told reporters, saying it will become clearer in coming weeks how many tourists will visit under current rules.

As of Monday, foreigners can enter Israel with a negative covid test from the previous 72 hours and if their last vaccine dose was administered less than six months ago. Unvaccinated children remain subject to quarantine rules.

“It’s not going to happen in one day or two,” Razouk said, lamenting a long period with almost no sales. “It will take time.”

– Tourism hard hit –

Before Israel imposed the first of several coronavirus closures in March 2020, tourism was growing at a galloping pace in a region home to countless religious sites sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews.

A record 4.6 million people visited in 2019, an 11 percent increase on 2018, generating revenue of 23 billion shekels ($7.3 billion), or 1.5 percent of Israel’s GDP, the ministry said.

“The tourism industry had been driving 200 kilometres an hour, and we stopped suddenly because of covid,” Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevi told AFP Monday.

As expected, business from foreign tourists has plummeted since. Despite Monday’s opening, just 1.5 billion shekel in revenues is expected this year.

Ezechiel Grinberg, a Jerusalem-based independent tour guide, told AFP he survived on minimum wage government subsidies for nearly 18 months.

“It’s great as a (tourism) professional,” that visitors are starting to come back, he said. But he voiced concern that burdensome entry requirements will still suppress his income.

Nader Zaro, a Palestinian who owns a coffee shop on the Old City’s Via Dolorosa (Path of Sorrow) — seen by many as the route Jesus was forced to walk to his crucifixion — said he needed “normal tourists” to come back.

Israel has allowed in select tourist groups under special arrangements, but Zaro explained such groups don’t help small operators like him.

“Everyone wants to catch them,” Zaro said. “There are big sharks and small sharks… and big sharks eat all. Me, I’m eaten.”

– Booster shots –

Despite record high covid transmission figures in late August and September, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government avoided a new lockdown, betting that a fresh vaccination push could stem a wave blamed partly on Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Authorities launched an aggressive campaign to inoculate citizens with a third, booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which drove down infections.

Following widespread data that the Pfizer-BioNTech’s protection wanes six months after the last jab, Israel has put recent vaccinations at the centre of its re-opening strategy.

Among those who landed at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Monday was American Lauren Solsberg, who said she had to get a booster to meet entry requirements.

“It was down to the last minute before we knew that we were going to come,” she said.

AFP