Israel Hits Gaza After Rocket Attack As Jerusalem Tensions Spike

A general view shows the remains of the Shorouq building, levelled by an Israeli airstrike during the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City on April 19, 2022.  AFP

 

Israel carried out its first airstrike on the Gaza Strip in months early Tuesday, in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave after a weekend of violence around a Jerusalem holy site.

The army also said its special forces had made five arrests overnight in the occupied West Bank, which has seen a string of deadly Israeli raids since several recent fatal attacks against the Jewish state.

The latest tensions have focused on the highly contested Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Israeli-annexed Old City.

Palestinian worshippers gathering there for Ramadan prayers have been outraged by visits by religious Jewish under heavy Israeli police protection — as well as restrictions on their own access.

The violence, coinciding with the Jewish Passover festival as well as the Muslim holy month, has sparked fears of a repeat of last year’s events, when similar circumstances sparked an 11-day war that levelled parts of Gaza.

On Monday, warning sirens sounded after a rocket was fired into southern Israel from the blockaded enclave, controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, in the first such incident since early January.

The Israeli military said that the rocket had been intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system.

Hours later, the Israeli air force said it had hit a Hamas weapons factory in retaliation.

Hamas claimed to have used its “anti-aircraft defences” to counter the raid, which caused no casualties, according to witnesses and security sources in Gaza.

Deadly attacks

No faction in the crowded enclave of 2.3 million inhabitants immediately claimed responsibility for the rocket.

But it comes after weeks of mounting violence, with a total of 23 Palestinians and Arab-Israelis killed, including assailants who targeted Israelis in four deadly attacks.

Those attacks claimed 14 lives, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally.

The rocket fire also followed a weekend of Israeli-Palestinian violence in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound that wounded more than 170 people, mostly Palestinian demonstrators.

Diplomatic sources said the United Nations Security Council was to meet Tuesday to discuss the spike in violence.

Israeli police said they had refused to authorise a march Jewish nationalists had planned around the walls of the Old City.

A similar parade last year, following a similar wave of violence, was interrupted by rocket fire from Gaza which in turn triggered the 11-day war.

This month has also seen violence in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Tuesday it had treated 72 people following a demonstration in the village of Burqa, against a march by Israeli settlers demanding the re-establishment of a nearby settlement evacuated in 2005.

The Red Crescent said four people had been directly hit by tear gas canisters and seven had been hit by rubber-coated bullets.

 Regional Arab disquiet

Incidents at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, have triggered repeated rounds of violence over the past century.

Jews are allowed to visit the site at certain times, but they are prohibited from praying there.

The latest spike in violence has strained Israel’s diplomatic relations with some Muslim countries and drawn wider international concern.

On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates summoned Israel’s ambassador to convey “strong protest and denunciation” of events at Al-Aqsa, particularly “attacks on civilians” and “incursions” by Israeli security forces.

The UAE only established ties with Israel in 2020. Jordan, custodian of east Jerusalem’s holy sites, had already summoned Israel’s charge d’affaires on Monday.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called both Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday.

Blinken’s calls followed State Department spokesman Ned Price announcing the previous day that the US had “urged all sides to preserve the historic status quo” at the Al-Aqsa compound and avoid “provocative” steps.

Abbas stressed his complete rejection of any changes to the legal and historical status quo, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said.

Lapid meanwhile said he emphasised to Blinken “Israel’s responsible and measured efforts in the face of riots by hundreds of Islamic extremists.”

Hamas has vowed to defend Al-Aqsa’s status as “a purely Islamic site”.

But analysts have said in recent weeks that the movement does not want a war at present, partly because its military capacities were degraded by the last one.

They say Hamas is also wary that a new conflict could prompt Israel to cancel thousands of work permits lately issued to residents of impoverished Gaza.

But Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction that Israel says has thousands of fighters and rockets in the enclave, warned Monday that it will not be forced “into silence” over events in Jerusalem.

AFP

Israel Welcomes Fleeing Ukrainian Jews

Volunteers in the Israeli northern town of Nof Hagalil gather objects donated to welcome refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, on March 6, 2022. – “Nof Hagalil is built on immigration,” said mayor Ronen Plot, who arrived in Israel nearly 50 years ago from Moldova. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP)

 

In a parking lot under his municipality office in northern Israel, Nof Hagalil mayor Ronen Plot juggled phone calls as volunteers unloaded blankets and clothes donated for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine.

“Nof Hagalil is built on immigration,” said Plot, 67, who arrived in Israel nearly 50 years ago from Moldova. “We will absorb as many people as we can.”

After the Russian invasion began, Plot posted on Facebook, inviting Ukrainian “olim”, or Jewish immigrants, to his town and urging residents to pitch in.

“If a big immigration wave arrives, we’d be happy to take part in the Israeli effort,” he wrote.

Under Israel’s “law of return”, anyone with at least one Jewish parent or grandparent is entitled to citizenship.

Among those responding to Plot’s invitation was Chaim Gershman, who reached Nof Hagalil on Thursday with his wife Ora and their four children. His mother Nelja, 60, arrived a day later.

Gershman said he had just one hour to pack, as Russian bombs fell on his community near Kyiv. He left wearing work clothes from fixing a faucet.

“At first, we didn’t believe a thing like this will happen and we thought it was fake,” said Gershman.

He said when he arrived in Israel, he chose Nof Hagalil because of the mayor’s posts.

“I saw a man inviting, saying come to our city, we’ll welcome you,” he said.

Plot said his community offers a familiar environment because more than half its 50,000 residents speak Russian.

Shops sell Belarusian herring and Georgian sparkling water, and street signs are translated into Russian.

The mayor said he located 600 empty hotel rooms and 300 vacant apartments to house the Ukrainians who are “exhausted”.

“They endured a lot of misery, they are hungry and tired and it’s awful.”

– ‘We left everything’ –

The Gershmans fled the Kyiv-area town of Anatevka, built in the image of the fictional Jewish village made famous in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Escorted by police, the family drove 17 hours to reach the Moldovan border, only stopping once for 10 minutes amid explosions.

“We left everything we had, our whole lives,” Ora Gershman, 35, said.

Now, the seven family members sleep in two adjoining rooms in Nof Hagalil’s Plaza Hotel. The children have enrolled in school, while the parents organise paperwork and search for permanent accommodation.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has avoided forceful condemnation of Russia’s invasion, stressing Israel’s strong ties with Moscow and Kyiv.

Chaim Gershman said he did not “understand how one can stay neutral when it is clear who the aggressor is”.

“Putin has said they will only attack military targets but at the moment they are bombing without distinction,” he said.

– ‘Impossible’ rate –

Authorities say as many as 100,000 “olim” and their families could arrive from both Ukraine and Russia, evoking an earlier wave of about a million people who immigrated from the collapsing former Soviet Union.

Interior minister Ayelet Shaked estimated Sunday that about 15,000 Ukrainians could reach Israel by the end of March, with 90 percent unqualified for “return” rights. She said that was an “impossible” rate for the country of 9.4 million people.

“We are the insurance policy for the Jewish people,” Shaked, of Bennett’s religious nationalist Yamina party, told Israeli public radio.

Israeli citizens who host non-Jewish Ukrainians who are not their immediate relatives must post a 10,000 shekel ($3,046) deposit per traveller, returnable when they depart.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai wrote on Twitter: “Such a demand at this time is inhuman and immoral and prevents refugees fleeing the war and without family in Israel from seeking refuge here.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, told reporters on Monday that an agreement had been reached on deposits for non-Jewish refugees and thanked Shaked, without providing specifics.

– Arab neighbours –

The arrival of Jews to Nof Hagalil touches a historical nerve.

It was built as a Jewish town in the 1950s on land appropriated from the neighbouring Arab city of Nazareth. Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben Gurion aimed to “Judaize” the Galilee, which was inhabited mostly by Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority.

Arab citizens of Israel are the descendants of Palestinians who remained during Israel’s 1948 war of independence, while more than 700,000 others fled or were forced from their homes. Israel has not allowed most Palestinian refugees to return.

With time, Arab citizens have moved into Nof Hagalil, and today they comprise about a quarter of its population.

One of them is Saed Diab, 39, the banquet manager of the Plaza Hotel that is hosting refugees. He said he donated hand-me-down clothing for the new arrivals.

“I was in Kyiv on holiday just before the coronavirus. Nice city, good people,” he said.

“I’m sorry for what’s happening to them.”

AFP

Israelis, Arabs, Iranians Flee Ukraine Amidst Shelling

Family members wait for the arrival of Israeli passengers arriving from Ukraine via the border with Romania on an Israeli ‘Israir’ rescue flight at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022. JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Israelis, Iranians and Tunisians landed back in their home countries Tuesday to the tearful relief of relatives, as evacuations of nationals caught up in the Russian invasion of Ukraine gathered pace.

The evacuees had all been forced to make harrowing escapes by land through the war zone to board repatriation flights in neighbouring countries after Ukraine closed its airspace to civilian traffic at the start of the invasion last week.

One of the first repatriation flights bringing home Israeli evacuees landed at Ben Gurion airport from Romania.

Badr Tawil, 23, a student who fled Ukraine’s under-fire second city Kharkiv, said he had escaped chaos.

“We just woke up once and we heard the sounds around us. Bombs everywhere. So we decided to leave, just to leave Ukraine,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday his office had helped 4,000 Israelis leave Ukraine since Russia invaded.

“We will do everything to not leave any Israeli behind, or any Jew behind,” he told journalists.

Many of the Israelis repatriated on Tuesday were members of the Arab minority, who make up 20 percent of the Jewish state’s population.

A student, who identified himself only as Hussein, described a terrifying escape from the war zone.

“For four days, we have been sleeping in staircases and train stations,” he said.

“We had a really difficult time without food. I was in Ukraine in Kharkiv. It is the last year of my studies, but now I left everything to return.”

Uda Abu Saied, whose son Muhammad returned on the flight, said she had been terrified for his safety.

“I wasn’t sure if my son would return or not. He was in the most dangerous place,” she said.

“They went on their own with the bus for 24 hours, and I imagined all kinds of scenarios like a missile hitting and killing them, or maybe that they would get captured.”

The foreign ministry said Monday that one Israeli had been killed in Ukraine when the convoy he was travelling in came under fire as he tried to reach neighbouring Moldova.

The foreign ministry said authorities had contacted the man’s wife, who was in Ukraine with their children.

‘Nightmare’

Israeli passengers arriving from Ukraine via the border with Romania on an Israeli ‘Israir’ rescue flight are welcomed by their family upon arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2022.JACK GUEZ / AFP

 

Iran’s state media said a first repatriation flight carrying nationals fleeing Ukraine landed in Tehran from Poland at around 7:00 am (0330 GMT).

In Tunis, a group of 106 Tunisian students and a baby arrived on a special repatriation flight by military aircraft from the Romanian capital Bucharest.

In emotional scenes, they were welcomed by their relatives.

Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi, who was at the airport, said a further 480 Tunisian students would be repatriated in the coming days via Romania or Poland.

“We went through a nightmare, through a war,” said engineering student Aymen Badri.

Fellow engineering student Hamdi Boussaa said getting across the border into Romania had been “a very complex operation”.

Some 1,700 Tunisians live in Ukraine, mostly students.

In all, more than 10,000 Arab students attend university in Ukraine, drawn to the former Soviet republic by its low cost of living.

Other Arab governments are also planning repatriation flights.

Morocco, which has around 8,000 students enrolled in Ukrainian universities, said it was organising special flights from Bucharest, Budapest and Warsaw on both Wednesday and Thursday.

Evacuees will be charged 750 dirhams (70 euros) per head for the one-way trip to Casablanca.

The Palestinian foreign ministry said it was scrambling to assist some 2,600 nationals trapped in Ukraine, hundreds of them students.

More than 660,000 people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries since Russia launched its invasion last week, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.

That includes hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, mostly women and children, as well as third-country nationals.

-AFP

African Union Condemns Coups, Dodges Israel Vote

United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres addresses Presidents and delegates via a telecast at the African Union headquarters during the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa, on February 5, 2022. Tony KARUMBA / AFP

 

The African Union has condemned a recent “wave” of military coups that has seen an unprecedented number of member states suspended from the bloc, a senior official said Sunday, the last day of its annual summit.

The putsches were among the main issues expected to be discussed at the summit, along with the AU’s ties to Israel and its response to a grinding war in the north of host country Ethiopia.

Less than two weeks before the summit began Saturday, Burkina Faso became the fourth country to be suspended by the AU after disgruntled soldiers toppled President Roch Marc Christian Kabore.

Guinea, Mali and Sudan are also currently suspended.

READ ALSO: Kenya Under Fire Over Calls To ‘Weaken’ Forest Protections

“Every African leader in the assembly has condemned unequivocally… the wave of unconstitutional changes of government,” Bankole Adeoye, head of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, told a press conference Sunday.

“Do your research: At no time in the history of the African Union have we had four countries in one calendar year, in 12 months, been suspended,” Adeoye said.

Addressing African foreign ministers ahead of the summit, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, denounced a “worrying resurgence” of such military coups.

But the AU has been accused of an inconsistent response, notably by not suspending Chad after a military council took over following the death of longtime President Idriss Deby Itno on the battlefield last April.

And while Adeoye touted the AU’s use of suspensions to punish coup leaders, analysts say the body must be more proactive to prevent putsches.

“It is only when crisis hits that we say, ‘Gosh, how come this country is falling apart like this so quickly?'” Solomon Dersso, founder of the AU-focused Amani Africa think-tank, told AFP this week.

Israel debate paused

Also on Sunday, leaders agreed to suspend debate on Faki’s controversial decision to accept the accreditation of Israel, postponing a potentially divisive vote.

Faki’s move last July drew protest from influential members including South Africa and Algeria which argued that it flew in the face of AU statements supporting the Palestinian Territories.

Both countries pushed to have the issue put on the summit agenda.

As the summit opened Saturday, Faki defended Israel’s accreditation, saying it could be “an instrument in the service of peace” while calling for “a serene debate”.

He also said the AU’s commitment to the Palestinian push for independence was “unchanging and can only continue to grow stronger”.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on Saturday called for Israel’s accreditation to be revoked, saying it “should never be rewarded” for its “apartheid regime”.

The AU normally prizes consensus, but it was unclear how a vote would have fared, with a two-thirds majority required to overrule Faki.

Instead a six-country committee will study the issue, diplomats told AFP Sunday.

Along with South Africa and Algeria, the committee will include Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who supported Faki’s move, as well as Cameroon and Nigeria, the diplomats said.

Israel’s foreign ministry said the AU had “rejected attempts by Algeria and South Africa to revoke” its accreditation.

“The committee’s conclusions will be presented at the African Union Summit in 2023,” the ministry said in a statement.

Ethiopia peace push

It was unclear whether the summit, most of which took place behind closed doors, substantively addressed the 15-month war in Ethiopia, which pits Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government against fighters from the northern Tigray region.

The fact that Ethiopia hosts the AU makes any intervention by the bloc especially delicate, and Faki waited until last August — nine months after fighting began — to appoint Olusegun Obasanjo as a special envoy tasked with trying to broker a ceasefire.

Ethiopia has also held a seat on the Peace and Security Council throughout the conflict, though it failed in its bid to stay on the 15-member body for the next term, diplomats said.

Adeoye said Sunday it was “not true” that the AU had been slow to respond to a war that has left thousands dead and, according to the United Nations, driven hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation.

“There was no way the AU would not engage on such a situation given its exact location in Ethiopia,” he said.

Obasanjo will head to war-hit areas this week, and the AU will provide “experts from the African continent” to back up his push for dialogue, Adeoye said.

“We are all working for peace.”

AFP

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.