Workers in hazmat suits collect prayers from ‘God’s mailbox’ in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Twice a year, cleaning teams using long sticks gouge out tens of thousands of written prayers that visitors traditionally cram into the crevices of Judaism’s Western Wall in Jerusalem.

It was spring cleaning again at the wall on Tuesday. But this time, the rite was held with precautions against coronavirus infection in place.

Workers in hazmat suits and gas masks sprayed sanitizer on the wall’s ancient stones while others held onto their sticks with gloves as they extracted the paper notes left in “God’s mailbox”.

Religious authorities also operate a service in which people can email their prayers for placement between the stones.

One would-be worshipper, who stepped up to the wall and kissed it, was removed by police, a day after Israel tightened public prayer restrictions.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who oversees the collection of the notes to ensure there’s always room for more, offered a prayer for salvation “from this difficult virus that has attacked the world”.

The papers were placed into bags for ritual burial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. A short distance away from the Western Wall, al-Aqsa mosque was also being sanitized.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of the Second Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD. It stands today beneath a religious plaza revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis chafe at coronavirus restrictions

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.

Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority are another sensitive community, where officials say testing for the virus has been lagging.

“There are three ‘Corona Countries’ – the ultra-Orthodox sector, the Arab sector and the rest of the State of Israel,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters on Sunday.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement. On Saturday, a funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners in Bnai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town.

Reprimanded by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan for allowing what he deemed a “threat to life” at the funeral, police issued a statement vowing to “draw lessons to prevent similar situations recurring”.

Public gatherings are currently limited to up to 10 people, people must keep two meters apart and the public has been urged to stay at home unless they need to buy food, get medical attention, or go to work deemed crucial by the state.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ultra-Orthodox head of ZAKA, a volunteer emergency-medicine group, told Israel’s Army Radio that most ultra-Orthodox Jews did follow Health Ministry directives and only a small group defied them, possibly for political reasons.

“Everything they are doing has no value when they constitute a ‘ticking bomb’ because of whom people will get infected,” he said of those not following the government’s guidelines.

Israel has reported 4,347 coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities.

With the Health Ministry warning that the dead could eventually number in the thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due on Monday to convene officials to discuss a proposed lockdown of some of the country.

Bennett has proposed setting up a coronavirus surveillance system that would allow authorities to focus lockdowns on areas most prone to contagion.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Israel’s president tasks Netanyahu rival Gantz with forming government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz received an official mandate on Monday to try to form Israel’s next government, and called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join him in a unity administration.

In a sharp blow to Netanyahu, who had declared victory in a March 2 election, 61 of parliament’s 120 legislators voiced support for Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, in consultations with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday.

At a televised ceremony, Rivlin gave Gantz 28 days, with the option of a two-week extension, to assemble a ruling coalition.

But Gantz’s backers include opposing forces – the Joint List of Arab parties, and the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu faction led by former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman – that complicate efforts to form a viable government without wider support.

Netanyahu and Lieberman have proposed a six-month “national emergency government” grouping Blue and White and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party, to confront the coronavirus crisis.

“I give you my word, I will do all in my ability to establish within a few days as broad and patriotic a government as possible,” Gantz said at the nomination ceremony, without going into details.

Israel has held three inconclusive elections in less than a year, and Netanyahu faces a criminal indictment on corruption charges, which he denies.

Gantz, who in failed coalition negotiations with Netanyahu after a national ballot in September insisted on serving first as prime minister in a “rotating” leadership arrangement, called on his rival to agree to a unity deal now.

“The time has come for an end to empty words,” Gantz said at the ceremony. “It’s time to set aside our swords and unite our tribes and defeat hatred.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Rami Ayyub and Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s Netanyahu orders schools closed, calls for unity government

Reuters
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday ordered most schools in the country closed as a precaution against coronavirus and called for the formation of an emergency national unity government.

“We are altering our internal routine in order to handle an outside threat, the threat of the virus,” Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Editing by Stephen Farrell)

Israeli challenger Gantz plays character card against Netanyahu

By Dan Williams and Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Former military chief Benny Gantz portrays himself as a straight-shooter who will restore simple values to Israel if he wins power in the country’s third election in less than a year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Gantz wants to oust in Monday’s election, once praised him as “an officer and a gentleman” when his government appointed him Chief of Staff of the armed forces eight years ago.

The tone is very different now.

Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, has been attacking Netanyahu’s character, mainly over corruption charges facing Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party has branded Gantz a weak leftist.

Netanyahu’s trial is set to begin on March 17, just two weeks after the election. Netanyahu, who at 70 is a decade older than Gantz, denies any wrongdoing, calling the investigation a witch-hunt.

“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”

But while Blue and White has talked up Gantz’s military background, Likud has sought to portray their opponent as soft on Iran and too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.

Gayil Talshir, a Hebrew University political scientist, said Israel still appeared to be split, reflecting the inconclusive outcome of elections in April and September last year in which neither party could form a ruling coalition.

Blue and White led Likud in opinion polls for weeks during this campaign but recent surveys have shown Likud pulling slightly ahead.

“The trial is super-important… the center and left in Israel is going against Netanyahu,” Talshir said. “But his (Netanyahu’s) own base is rallying around Netanyahu.”

‘PROPER CONDUCT’

Tall and athletic, with a fondness for folk singing and motorcycle riding, Gantz was a consensus figure for Israelis when chief of the conscript military between 2011 and 2015.

But what he would do in power is not entirely clear, as he has sent mixed messages.

He casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks.

But while Palestinians may prefer Gantz to Netanyahu, there is little fondness for him after two wars in the Gaza Strip, a self-governing Palestinian enclave, while Gantz was in charge of the Israeli military. About 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the fighting.

He has also publicly embraced U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, which was rejected outright by the Palestinians for what they see as pro-Israel bias.

While Netanyahu holds rallies around the country exhorting his right-wing supporters to turn out, Gantz’s party believes some may be persuaded to peel away by a cross-partisan appeal to “proper conduct.”

“Our polls indicate that a considerable number of Likud supporters are unhappy with the situation and are wavering,” Yoaz Hendel, one of the party’s lawmakers, told Reuters. “They are part of our focus.”

Gantz’s “Mr Clean” image took a knock last week when police announced an investigation into the conduct of a now-defunct security consultancy that he chaired after he left the military.

Gantz is not a suspect in the case, but Netanyahu seized on it to try to undermine his less experienced opponent.

Gantz has also made occasional stumbles in campaign interviews, getting an interviewer’s name wrong and stammering slightly while collecting his thoughts.

Netanyahu has used these stumbles as ammunition to accuse Gantz as lacking the capacity for quick thinking.

“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz responded brusquely during a televised speech on Wednesday. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”

 

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel-Gaza ceasefire takes hold after two-day flare-up

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations took hold on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday after two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Islamic Jihad had fired 80 rockets towards Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three members of the militant group.

No casualties were reported on the Israeli side of the frontier and many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system.

The violence came a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.

A Palestinian militant walks as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The frontier fell quiet early on Tuesday, after a Palestinian official said Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous ceasefire” mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

“This round is over and Palestinian resistance promised its people that every act of aggression by the Zionist occupation would be met by a reaction from the resistance,” Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad official, told Reuters.

The Israeli military said it reopened roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday that it had closed when the fighting began and that train services would resume in the area.

But citing security concerns, the military kept Israel’s border crossings with Gaza closed, except for humanitarian cases, and banned Palestinian fisherman from heading to sea.

The violence erupted on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who the military said was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation that were followed by rockets launched by Islamic Jihad.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.

Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.

He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.

Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014. The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.

Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.

He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa. No construction date was announced for either area.

In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.

Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.

 

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. warns Israel against ‘unilateral’ West Bank moves

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled on Jan 28, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” – de facto annexation – to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.

But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a U.S.-Israeli mapping process – likely to take weeks or more – completed first.

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag as the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit is seen in the background, during a protest against the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in the village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 7, 2020. Picture taken February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the U.S. ambassador intervened.

“Israel is subject to the completion (of) a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.

In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for”.

‘POTENTIALLY ADVERSE’

“With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand,” he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.

“It was not a threat.”

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.

“The (U.S.) recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government – as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months – in place, Friedman said: “We have not made that demand.”

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.

Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable. Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.

“Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.”

“The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already under way. “We’ve been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks,” he said, alluding to rightist rivals.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Potter)

Palestinian and U.S. leaders blame each other for violence

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian and U.S. leaders blamed each other for a surge of violence, as mourners gathered in the occupied West Bank for the funeral of a Palestinian police officer shot dead during unrest, and Israel tightened security ahead of Friday Muslim prayers.

Tensions were high a day after two Palestinians were killed and 16 Israelis injured amid Palestinian anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled last week with Israel’s prime minister at his side.

There were sporadic clashes on Friday between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces near Azzun, where the funeral was held for the police officer killed in Jenin the previous day.

Palestinian authorities said he was killed by Israeli gunfire. Israeli officials did not comment, and Israeli media reported that he was shot by troops by mistake.

Palestinians also clashed with Israeli troops in Jericho and burned tyres in the West Bank village of Bil’in, and Palestinian medics said one protester had been critically wounded near Tulkarm.

“The Palestinian people will not allow the ‘Deal of the Century’ to pass,” said Mohammed Barakeh, waving a Palestinian flag in Bil’in.

“They are fighting for their national character and the independence of their country,” added Barakeh, a former Israeli lawmaker and member of Israel’s 21% Arab minority, many of whom identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has rejected Trump’s peace plan, which would give Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Washington was to blame for the unrest since the plan was unveiled.

“Those who introduce plans for annexation and the legalizing of occupation and settlements are really responsible for deepening violence and counter-violence,” he said. Abbas would go to the U.N. Security Council with “a genuine peace plan”, Erekat said.

Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the principal architect of the U.S. plan, has repeatedly denounced the Palestinian leadership, a break from decades of diplomacy when Washington strove to appear as a neutral broker. On Thursday he blamed Abbas for the violence.

“I think he does have responsibility,” Kushner said after briefing United Nations Security Council ambassadors. “He calls for days of rage in response, and he said that before he even saw the plan.”

Israeli police said security chiefs had met late on Thursday and decided to increase security “across the country, with emphasis on Jerusalem”.

A police statement singled out the risk of trouble during Friday prayers at the Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Palestinians have long boycotted relations with the Trump administration, which they view as biased against them. Washington says its plan offers a path toward a Palestinian state, and blames the Palestinian leadership for rejecting it over unrealistic demands.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson)

Iran will back Palestinian armed groups as much as it can: leader

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will support Palestinian armed groups as much as it can, Iran’s Supreme Leader said on Wednesday, urging Palestinians to confront a U.S. plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“We believe that Palestinian armed organizations will stand and continue resistance and the Islamic Republic sees supporting Palestinian groups as its duty,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech, the text of which appeared on his website.

“So it will support them however it can and as much as it can and this support is the desire of the Islamic system and the Iranian nation.”

U.S. President Donald Trump announced a U.S. plan last month which would set up a Palestinian state with strict conditions but allow Israel to take over long-contested Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian leaders have rejected it as biased toward Israel.

Trump’s plan is to the detriment of America and Palestinians should confront the deal by forcing Israelis and Americans out through jihad, Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Tensions have spiked between Iran and the United States after top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting the Islamic Republic to retaliate with a missile attack against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.

Khamenei jabbed at Arab leaders who have supported the Trump plan.

“The welcoming and clapping from a few traitorous Arab leaders who are worthless and dishonorable among their own people has no importance,” Khamenei said, according to his official website.

Separately, Khamenei called for a high turnout in parliamentary elections on Feb. 21, broadly seen as a gauge of support for authorities after all-out war with the United States almost broke out last month.

“It’s possible that someone doesn’t like me but if they like Iran they must come to the ballot box,” Khamenei said, according to his official website, noting that the elections could help solve Iran’s international problems.

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at hardliners over the mass disqualification of candidates for the election.

Iran’s economy has been battered after Trump pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to bring Iran to the negotiating table for curbs on its ballistic missile program and to cut its support for regional proxies.

America’s attempt to pressure Iran to negotiate through sanctions will not work, Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state TV on Wednesday.

“They thought we would request negotiations from America. Negotiations by their definition, not our definition,” Rouhani said. “They want us to surrender through cruel, unequal and undignified negotiations. This is impossible for the Iranian people.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean)