With all Holy Week prayers cancelled, Egypt s Coptic Christians have resorted to traditional celebrations and rituals to accompany their Holy Week occasion. A pastor at the Church of Anba Bishoy in New Minya, Usab Ezzay, said that the church is celebrating Holy Wednesday which sees the church remember Judas, the disciple of Jesus who sold him out to Jewish priests in exchange for 30 silver pieces. Starting Wednesday night until Saturday, the church forbids handshakes and kisses after the end of prayers to protest Judas s treacherous kiss. The occasion is also referred to as “Ayyoub Wednesday” because of the Prophet Ayyoub (Job), according to Ezzat, who explained how his story in the Old Testament would be read in prayers of this evening. This story, known also as “The Book of Job”, is studied by the church due to its similarities with Jesus s life – from the intense suffering he endured to the triumphant ending. Holy Wednesday celebrations also coincide with the appearance of the first wheat crop grains, which the Copts exchange in celebrations and make dolls out of symbolizing goodness and optimism. This habit extends back to Ancient Egypt and celebrates the success and abundances of crops. These dolls are then hung at the entrance of houses and gates at this time each year, and typically left there throughout the year until the next year, where they are replaced with new ones.
Perched over the gaping roof of Notre-Dame, a crane stands idle above the silent Paris cathedral, where repair work has ground to a halt one year after the monstrous blaze that nearly destroyed one of the world s most revered monuments. Millions around the world watched in horror last April 15 as firefighters battled through the night to save the 13th-century masterpiece from the fire, which ravaged its roof and toppled the steeple. French President Emmanuel Macron promised a herculean effort to have the UNESCO heritage site restored within five years, in time for the Paris Olympics of 2024. But France s lockdown to combat the coronavirus — which has forced a full suspension of work at the site — is making that goal even more unlikely than before. Work had already been delayed for months by decontamination efforts after more than 300 tonnes of lead from the roof melted in the blaze, covering the site in toxic particles that have proven hard to remove. And the fragile structure remains at risk despite the massive wooden beams propping up the arches and gables. Authorities had to halt work several times over the winter when winds surpassed 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour). The 60 to 70 workers normally on site have not even removed the tangled web of metal scaffolding tubes that fused together in the inferno, which erupted during renovation work on the roof. Until they do, they cannot install a more durable temporary roof to protect the church s priceless artworks from rain. Although investigators have still not determined the cause of the fire, prosecutors suspect faulty electrical wiring or a poorly extinguished cigarette. – Monumental tasks – Jean-Louis Georgelin, the five-star general and fervent Catholic in charge of the renovation, is hoping to resume work soon, perhaps by his “squirrels,” who hang by ropes to reach areas where it is too dangerous to walk. “For these technicians, these tightrope walkers, social distancing is part of the job,” Georgelin told AFP. Much of the debris has been removed from the nave, which allowed Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit to hold a small Good Friday ceremony in the church last week. But mounds of debris still have to be cleared above the massive vaulted roof, a more delicate operation that was supposed to be finished this summer. Notre-Dame s renowned organ must also be removed to have its nearly 8,000 pipes painstakingly cleaned from the layer of lead dust deposited by the melting of the roof and spire. Countless other cleaning and restoration operations await, and the project s chief architect Philippe Villeneuve has warned that new challenges could arise as the work progresses. Even the esplanade in front of Notre-Dame remains off limits, surrounded by a tall fence to keep tourists far from the worksite. Yet Georgelin said he remains confident the five-year goal will be met despite the coronavirus delay, promising that worshippers will hear a “Te Deum” sung in the cathedral in April 2024. “Lots of people said we d cut corners to finish in five years. These are malicious comments — It s a question of carrying out the work assiduously, without any hesitation,” he said. – Tough choices – Yet officials still have to decide a crucial question: Rebuild the cathedral exactly as it was, using traditional techniques and materials, or incorporate modern equipment and expertise? Macron has said he is in favour of adding a “contemporary” touch to the spire, which was itself a relatively modern touch, installed by the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-19th century. Villeneuve has refused to countenance any glass spire, rooftop garden or any other proposals that have emerged. Opinion polls suggest most French share his more conservative view. Macron has promised to “consult” the French on any choice for the steeple, and launched an international architectural competition for its reconstruction, though no timeline has been set. There is also the matter of replacing the lattice of oak beams that supported the roof — Georgelin raised hackles in January when he dismissed “lobbying” by the wood industry for an exact replica. Whatever the choices, money should not be a problem — more than 900 million euros (nearly $1 billion) has been given or pledged by some 340,000 companies and individuals worldwide. “Everything makes me think we will definitely need that money,” Georgelin said. Yet the funds won t help the restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses on the island in the heart of Paris, said Patrice Lejeune, president of the Notre-Dame business alliance. They have seen two-thirds of their revenue evaporate on average over the past year, he told AFP. “You have people who have worked 50 years, and here they re on the brink after just one year,” he added. No commemorations are planned to mark the anniversary of the fire, in line with the ban on public gatherings during the coronavirus crisis.
Coptic Orthodox buildings across Egypt abroad have decorated black flags and curtains on their walls and entrances, showing sorrow over Christ s crucifixion, starting from April 12 and lasting for a week. A member of the General Congregation Council in Alexandria Mohsen George said that the Coptic Orthodox churches in Alexandria hung black curtains and flags starting with Palm Sunday, lasting until the end of the Holy Week. He added that these black curtains will be replaced with white ones starting on Good Friday and lasting for 50 days – a celebration of Christ s triumph and resurrection.. Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria headed the Palm Sunday mass at Saint Pishoy Monastery of Wadi al-Natroun without attendance as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. In a short speech during mass, Tawadros said that the gospel recounting the story of Zacchaeus shall console those Copts staying in their home who failed to attend the mass. The closure of the churches is for a temporary time due to the coronavirus outbreak worldwide, Pope Tawadros II said. Very few priests, monks and deacons participated in the mass which was followed by prayers.
Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria headed the Palm Sunday mass at Saint Pishoy Monastery of Wadi al-Natroun without attendance as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. In a short speech during mass, Tawadros said that the gospel recounting the story of Zacchaeus shall consoles those Copts staying in their home who failed to attend the mass. The closure of the churches is for a temporary time due to the coronavirus outbreak worldwide, Pope Tawadros II asserted. Few priests, monks and deacons participated in the mass which was followed by prayers. Spokesperson for the Coptic Orthodox Church s official page said the Christian TV channels will broadcast the prayers on air. Pope Tawadros II called on Copts to remotely participate in these prayers through the screens to instill the unity of heart and soul. The pope will perform the coming mass prayers including Easter Resurrection at the Saint Pishoy Monastery without attendance. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt last month closed all churches and stopped all ritual services, masses and gatherings as part of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The church s decision came after a meeting by the Standing Committee of the Holy Synod, headed by Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, to discuss the latest developments of the coronavirus. A committee statement said that the decision came “given that gatherings represent the greatest danger leading to the rapid spread of the virus, out of the national and ecclesiastical responsibility of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and to preserve all the people of Egypt.”
BERLIN (AP) — As the Easter holiday approaches, world leaders and health officials are fervently warning that hard-won gains in the fight against the coronavirus must not be jeopardized by relaxing social distancing. A spike in deaths in Britain and New York and surges of reported new infections in Japan and in India s congested cities make it clear the battle is far from over. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top American infectious diseases expert, said the pandemic will demand permanent changes in people s behavior until a vaccine is developed. He said everyone should be constantly washing their hands and those sick should not go to school or work. “Don t anybody ever shake hands again,” he said. “I mean, it sounds crazy, but that s the way it s really got to be until we get to a point where we know the population is protected.” He also shot down hopes that warmer spring weather would bring an end to the crisis. “One should not assume that we are going to be rescued by a change in the weather,” he said Thursday. “You must assume that the virus will continue to do its thing.” The US has by far the most confirmed infections with over 430,000, three times the number of the next three countries combined. New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300. New York has more than 40 percent of the US death total of around 15,000. “We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “But it s not a time to be complacent.” German Health Minister Jens Spahn cautioned that the positive trend in fewer new infections “must be cemented.” “It is right to remain consistent over Easter,” he told the Handelsblatt newspaper Thursday. “Even if it is difficult in this weather, we should stay home and refrain from family visits so that the infection curve does not rise again.” Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized that “even short trips inside Germany, to the seaside or the mountains or relatives, can t happen over Easter this year.” New Zealand police warned people not to drive to holiday homes over Easter or risk arrest, while Lithuania was imposing a lockdown on major cities over the holiday. Portugal halted commercial flights at the country s five international airports and set up checkpoints on major roads and junctions to stop Easter visits. Additional restrictions came into force Thursday for the next four days, including a ban on people leaving their local areas and on gatherings of more than five people. Greece also tightened restrictions ahead of next week s Orthodox Easter, increasing police roadblocks along highways, doubling fines for lockdown violations and banning travel between islands. Swiss police were setting roadblocks at the Gotthard tunnel, seeking to dissuade drivers from heading to the Italian-speaking Ticino region, the only part of Switzerland south of the Alps and one of the worst-hit by the pandemic. Iran s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested mass gatherings may be barred through the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which runs from late April through most of May. Khamenei urged Shia faithful to pray at home instead. Shias typically pray together and communities often share meals, especially during Ramadan. Iran has reported over 66,000 infections and over 4,100 deaths, although experts suspect those numbers under-report the country s outbreak. Indonesia s president banned civil servants, police officers, military personnel and employees of state-owned companies from returning to their hometowns to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The annual mass exodus usually involves tens millions of Indonesians crisscrossing the archipelago of 17,000 islands. Britain s Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a third night in intensive care with COVID-19 infection, where his spokesman said Thursday he “continues to improve.” Johnson is receiving oxygen but is not on a ventilator. Britain posted its highest death toll in a single day Wednesday, with 938 virus-related deaths. Japan reported more than 500 new cases for the first time Thursday, a worrisome rise since it has the world s oldest population and COVID-19 can be especially serious in the elderly. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared a state of emergency, but not a lockdown, in Tokyo and six other prefectures. Companies in the world s third-largest economy have been slow to embrace working from home and Abe appears concerned about keeping the economy going. Many commuters jammed Tokyo s streets as usual Thursday. But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the city cannot delay non-essential business shutdowns for two more weeks like Abe s government has proposed. “The spread of the infections is so fast in Tokyo that we cannot wait that long,” she said. India, whose 1.3 billion people are under a lockdown until next week, has sealed off dozens of hot spots in and around New Delhi, the capital. It will supply residents with food and medicine but not allow them to leave. The number of confirmed cases exceeds 5,000, with 166 deaths. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been leveling off in hard-hit Italy and Spain, which together have more than 32,000 deaths, but the daily tolls are still shocking. Spain reported 683 more deaths Thursday, bringing its total to 15,238. The latest figures were released as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appeared before parliament to ask for a second two-week extension of a state of emergency. Sánchez acknowledged authorities were caught off guard by the crisis and failed to provide hospitals with critical supplies, including virus tests and protective clothing for medical workers. “Europe reacted late. All of the West reacted late, and Spain is no exception,” Sánchez said. Worldwide, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has climbed to nearly 1.5 million, with nearly 90,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and the efforts of some governments to conceal the extent of their outbreaks. For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms like fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. More than 330,000 people have recovered.
JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israel called on Tuesday for the immediate resumption of indirect talks on the return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers held for years in Gaza, but the territory s Islamist rulers Hamas dismissed the overture. The Israeli appeal came in a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s office after Hamas said last week it might be willing to move forward on the issue. Israel last week linked any future coronavirus-linked aid to neighboring Gaza on progress in efforts to recover the two soldiers — who it said were killed in the 2014 Gaza war — and the two civilians who separately slipped into the enclave. Hamas has said it holds all four. The Islamist group has never stated whether the soldiers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided a sign of life, as it has done in a previous similar case. The families of the two civilians said they suffered from mental health issues. Hamas has said that returning the four Israelis would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid. In its statement, the Israeli prime minister s office said Netanyahu s national security team “stands ready to take constructive action with the goal of returning the fallen and the missing and of ending the affair, and are calling for an immediate dialogue via mediators.” In past rounds of talks, Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have served as intermediaries. But Hamas official Moussa Dodin on Tuesday dismissed Netanyahu s offer to resume talks, saying it was not serious and warning the premier: “[The Israelis] may be forced to negotiate under more complicated conditions” in the future. Yehya al-Sinwar, Hamas chief in Gaza, had said last week that he saw “a possible initiative to revive [the] issue” of the four Israelis if Israel frees jailed Palestinians, though he rejected the linkage to coronavirus aid. “A prisoner swap will exact a big price” from Israel, he told Hamas s Al-Aqsa TV, saying that were it to start by releasing sick, old and female prisoners “we may offer something partial in return”. Hamas, which has 13 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in blockaded Gaza and hopes to curb its spread, wants Israel to ease economic conditions. Israel is also loath to deal with a new humanitarian crisis on its border with Gaza, now sealed by both sides. Israel in the past has freed hundreds of jailed Palestinians, including many militants, in exchange for the recovery of dead or captive Israelis. But rightists in Netanyahu s coalition government, including Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, oppose any further releases of Palestinian militants.
Muslims should fast during Ramadan regardless of the coronavirus outbreak, an Al-Azhar committee said in an urgent session on Tuesday, amid concerns that the pandemic would affect affect the Islamic fasting month, which is set to begin on April 23. Al-Azhar s jurisprudence committee said in an official statement that there was “no scientific evidence yet of a link between fasting and contracting the virus.”
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Sunday it would minimize its troop movements in operation zones in neighboring Syria in response to the coronavirus outbreak as the Turkish death toll and infections in the country rose. Turkey s death toll from the COVID-19 disease has risen by 73 to 574 in the last 24 hours, with new confirmed cases jumping by 3,135 to total 27,069, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said. Turkey, which is ninth globally in coronavirus cases, has curbed much social movement, mostly sealed its borders and shuttered businesses. In the latest step, the defense ministry said it had set up a new unit to battle the spread of the disease. Troops deployed in Syria will now enter and exit operation areas only with the permission of the head of the army, the ministry said. “Thus, the movement of staff and troops is minimized, unless it is mandatory,” it added. Turkey s military backs Syrian rebels in the northwestern Idlib region where it ramped up a deployment earlier this year. Fighting has calmed since Ankara agreed a ceasefire with Moscow, which backs Syrian government forces, a month ago. In Idlib, where about a million people have been displaced by the conflict in recent months, doctors fear the worst if the coronavirus hits, given hospitals lie in ruins and camps overflow with people devastated by nine years of war. Turkey s defence ministry said doctors had been sent to operation areas in part to conduct training related to the severe respiratory disease. The Turkish military also oversees Syrian border regions to the east of Idlib. At home, Turkey s outbreak has surged in the last few weeks, with new cases climbing daily. On Friday the government issued a stay-at-home order for most Turks under 20, on top of the existing order for over-65s, plus one for mandatory mask use in crowded public places, shops and workplaces. On Sunday, the government said residents could apply online for five free masks per week delivered via mail.
JERUSALEM (AP) — A small group of Franciscan monks and Roman Catholic faithful took to the streets of Jerusalem s Christian Quarter in the Old City Sunday to distribute olive branches after the traditional Palm Sunday procession was cancelled due to restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Iran, which is dealing with the worst outbreak in the Mideast, announced plans to allow some businesses to reopen later this month even as the death toll continued to climb. Meanwhile, Lebanon reopened its airport to allow citizens stranded overseas to return home. Palm Sunday celebrations start the Holy Week leading up to Easter. Worshipers traditionally carry palm fronds and olive branches and march from the top of the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem s Old City. While thousands of pilgrims usually participate in the march, this year was limited to a handful of participants. Clerics and faithful went door to door often throwing the branches to Christians looking on from their balconies. “This year because of the new situation we are trying to come to all the Christians in our Christian Quarter to bring these branches of olives, the sign of new hope,” said the Rev. Sandro Tomasevic, a Catholic clergyman at the Latin Parish of Jerusalem. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus entry into Jerusalem and is the start of the church s most solemn week, which includes the Good Friday re-enactment of Jesus crucifixion and death and his resurrection on Easter. In Israel, more than 8,000 people have contracted the coronavirus and 46 have died. In the West Bank, nearly 200 cases have been reported, including a large outbreak in the biblical town of Bethlehem. The outbreak has forced church officials to close churches to the public and scale back religious observances throughout the week. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, held a small, closed service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The Israeli military began an operation in the hard-hit central city of Bnei Brak, helping to distribute food and medicine. The government last week put Bnei Brak, home to a large population of ultra-Orthodox religious Jews, under a near closure after an outbreak ravaged the city. Israel s ultra-Orthodox population has been disproportionately infected after religious leaders played down or ignored warnings to maintain social distance early in the crisis. Meanwhile, a nursing home in the southern city of Beersheba reported its sixth death in recent days. The coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms. It can cause serious illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues. Iran has been the hardest-hit nation across the region. Iran state TV reported that an additional 151 people had died, pushing the death toll to 3,603 with over 58,000 confirmed cases. But the country s president, Hassan Rouhani, announced that low-risk businesses will be allowed to resume their activities in Tehran on April 18. Businesses in other provinces will begin a week earlier, on April 11, he said during a meeting Saturday. He said government offices would also be able to boost staffing, from one-third to two-thirds of their work force, beginning April 11. Rouhani said the decision would not contradict a stay-at-home policy and that businesses must still observe health restrictions ordered by the government. High-risk businesses, like pools, gyms and shopping malls will remain closed, he said. In Lebanon, meanwhile, a jet carrying more than 70 Lebanese citizens who had been stuck in Saudi Arabia after Beirut s international airport closed nearly three weeks arrived in Lebanon. It marked the beginning of flights that aim to return thousands of Lebanese from around the world. Three more flights are scheduled to arrive later Sunday from the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. The tiny Mediterranean country has reported 520 cases of coronavirus and 20 deaths since the first case was reported in late February. Lebanon s Prime Minister Hassan Diab said up to 21,000 people have registered to return home, and the process will take several weeks.
ran said Thursday it “only acts in self-defense” after President Donald Trump warned it against attacks on US troops in Iraq, as a new war of words heated up despite the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions between the arch-foes flared in Iraq where the United States deployed Patriot air defense missiles prompting neighboring Iran to warn of consequences and demand a US withdrawal. Both countries have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the United States and more than 3,000 in Iran. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “unlike the US — which surreptitiously lies, cheats & assassinates — Iran only acts in self-defence”. “Don t be misled by usual warmongers, AGAIN,” he said, addressing US President Donald Trump. “Iran starts no wars but teaches lessons to those who do,” he added. Trump warned Iran on Wednesday that it would pay a “heavy price” in the event of further attacks on US troops. He tweeted that “upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq”. In response, Zarif tweeted that “Iran has FRIENDS: No one can have MILLIONS of proxies ” Iran responded angrily to the US Patriot deployment warning that Washington risked leading the Middle East to disaster in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Its armed forces chief of staff said the recent attacks against US bases in Iraq are the “natural reaction” of Iraqi people towards Washington s continuing military presence. The attacks “have nothing to do with our country. The Americans sometimes attribute such things to us, which is projecting the blame,” Iran s ISNA news agency quoted Major General Mohammad Bagheri as saying. “Iran has no involvement in these actions and no intention to attack foreign forces,” he said, underlining that Iran would still respond strongly to any aggression. – Battle for influence – Iran and the US are in a tense battle for influence in Iraq, where Tehran has powerful allies and Washington has close ties to the government. Bases in Iraq housing US troops and foreign embassies, particularly the American mission, have been targeted in more than two dozen rocket attacks since October that Washington has blamed on Iran-backed armed groups. Tensions have risen sharply since Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear agreement in 2018 and reimposed sweeping sanctions. They escalated in January when the US killed Iran s Major General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike near Baghdad airport. Iran retaliated by firing at bases in Iraq housing US troops. While on high alert for a response, Iranian air defences accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner minutes after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Iran has repeatedly called on the Trump administration to reverse its sanctions policy, which has been opposed even by US allies, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “This was the best, historic opportunity for the Americans to reverse their wrong path and for once, tell their nation they are not against the Iranian people,” President Hassan Rouhani told a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. Medicines and medical equipment are technically exempt from the US sanctions but purchases are frequently blocked by the unwillingness of banks to process purchases for fear of incurring large penalties in the United States. European nations have delivered medical goods to Iran in the first transaction under the Instex financing mechanism set up to get round US sanctions, Germany said on Tuesday. But it is more than a year since Britain, France and Germany announced the creation of Instex and Iran has questioned European governments commitment to seeing it through in defiance of the Trump administration.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A UN aid agency Tuesday began delivering food to the homes of impoverished Palestinians instead of making them pick up such parcels at crowded distribution centers — part of an attempt to prevent a mass outbreak of the new coronavirus in the densely populated Gaza Strip. As the virus continued to spread across the Middle East, Iran, the hardest-hit country in the region, reported 141 new deaths, pushing the death toll closer to 3,000 people. Late Tuesday, Gaza s Health Ministry said two more cases have been confirmed among travelers who returned from Egypt, bringing the number to 12. In Israel, defense officials said they had converted a missile-production plant into an assembly line for much-needed breathing machines. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said it would pay medical expenses for anyone infected with the virus. In Gaza, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees has for decades provided staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of the territory s 2 million people. Under the old system, those eligible lined up at crowded distribution centers four times a year to pick up their aid parcels. Starting on Tuesday, the agency began making home deliveries. “We assessed that tens of thousands of people will pour into the food distribution centers and this is very dangerous,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, the agency s spokesman in Gaza. Some 4,000 deliveries were made Tuesday, with an estimated 70,000 others to be made over the next three weeks, he said. Drivers on three-wheel motorcycles dropped off the food, calling people out of their homes, confirming their identities and leaving the bags outside. The agency instructed people to stay two meters (about six feet) from the delivery men to minimize the risk of infection. “This makes it easy for us,” said Manal Ziara, a resident of Shati refugee camp in west Gaza City. “The old mechanism causes crowding and touching that help the virus spread.” Twelve people have tested positive for coronavirus in Gaza, whose borders have been largely sealed by Israel and Egypt since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007. However, there s only a small number of available tests. International officials fear the virus could quickly spread and overwhelm an already gutted health system. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia or death. Particularly hard hit has been Iran, home to 80 million people. Iran s state TV reported 141 new deaths Tuesday, pushing the death toll to 2,898. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said there are now 44,606 confirmed cases, including 3,703 in critical condition. In Saudi Arabia, King Salman said the government will pay for the treatment of all coronavirus patients, including visitors and foreign residents. Saudi Arabia has more than 1,500 confirmed cases of the virus and eight recorded deaths. It has sealed off three major cities and imposed a nighttime curfew across the country, as well as suspended flights and the yearlong Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. In Israel, the Defense Ministry said it had overseen the conversion of a missile-production facility into an assembly line for ventilators. The line, set up at a facility belonging to state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, will produce ventilators made by Israeli company Inovytec. It produced its first 30 machines on Tuesday. The Israeli military, meanwhile, announced that its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, had entered quarantine after learning that he attended a meeting last week with an officer who was infected. It said Kochavi, who has no symptoms, would remain in isolation until the weekend. The army also said roughly 600 troops were being deployed to assist Israeli police in enforcing tight restrictions on movement Israel has recorded over 5,300 cases, with 20 deaths. In Jerusalem s Old City, workers sanitized the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to protect those who visit the site. With the Passover holiday approaching next week, prayer notes tucked between the wall s stones were removed using gloves and disposable wooden tools. The notes, which are removed twice a year, were collected in special bags and will be buried with other sacred papers.
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.
BEIRUT (AP) — Kurdish-led forces in Syria put down riots by Islamic State militants in a prison in the country s northeast on Monday, hours after the extremists knocked down doors and dug holes in walls between cells, a Syrian Kurdish spokesman said. Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said the situation in the prison in the northeastern town of Hassakeh was “fully under control.” He said their anti-terrorism force “ended the riots and secured the facility and all prisoners inside.” It was not immediately clear if the riots were triggered by concerns over the spread of the new coronavirus. Mustafa Bali, another spokesman for the forces, said late Sunday that so far there is no connection between the riot and fears of the fast-spreading virus. There are concerns over an outbreak of the virus inside overcrowded prison facilities in Syria and elsewhere in the region. But so far there are no reports of infection in Kurdish-administered northeastern Syria or in any detention facilities. Gabriel did not say whether there were casualties in the operation to secure the prison adding that none of the prisoners were able to escape. Kurdish authorities run more than two dozen detention facilities, scattered around northeastern Syria, holding about 10,000 IS fighters. Among the detainees are some 2,000 foreigners, including about 800 Europeans. The Kurdish-led forces, backed by the U.S-led coalition, declared a military victory against IS in March last year, after seizing control of the last sliver of land the militants had controlled in southeast Syria. Earlier Monday, a third spokesman for the forces, told The Associated Press that IS militants were still rioting on one of the floors of the prison. Mervan Qamishlo said in a voice message from northeastern Syria that IS “members are still out of control on one of the floors.” North Press Agency, a media platform operating in the Kurdish-administered areas, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said Monday that the local police force, known as Asayeh, had detained four IS members who were able to flee the night before The prison is believed to house foreign IS militants. It is not clear what nationalities were held there. The U.S-led coalition said it was assisting the SDF with aerial surveillance as they quell the riot. The coalition said in a tweet that the facility holds low level IS members. The coalition said its forces don t staff any detention facilities in Syria The Rojava Information Center, an activist collective in the Kurdish-held areas, said the prison in Hassakeh s southern neighborhood of Ghoeiran houses some 1,000 low-level foreign IS members. It added that the upper levels of the prison hold mostly Syrian IS members. Bali said late Sunday that the rioters were in full control of the ground floor of the prison and have smashed and removed the prison s internal doors. The Kurdish authorities have asked countries to repatriate their nationals, saying keeping thousands of detainees in crammed facilities is putting a strain on their forces. “These incidents confirm that Syrian Democratic Forces are able to secure Daesh terrorists,” Gabriel said using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS. He added that the incidents also show that the international community should help the SDF to “fully secure” detention facilities and camps hosting families of IS militants. The families of IS militants and supporters who came out of the last territory controlled by the group are also holed in camps around the Kurdish-controlled areas — the largest one housing nearly 70,000 women and children, many of them foreigners.
Pope Francis on Sunday joined UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres s appeal for an "immediate global ceasefire", on the fifth anniversary of Saudi Arabia s intervention in Yemen s civil war. "I join all those who have accepted this appeal and invite everyone to follow it by ceasing all forms of hostility, promoting the creation of humanitarian aid corridors, being open to diplomacy, and paying attention to the most vulnerable," the pope said in a message delivered after holding prayers. Several explosions shook the Saudi capital Riyadh late on Saturday, which the Saudi-led military coalition blamed on Yemen s Iran-aligned Huthi rebels, who have repeatedly targeted Saudi cities with missiles, rockets and drones. The attack came with the Saudi capital under curfew imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Pope Francis pointed out that Guterres s call on Monday came during "the current COVID-19 emergency, which knows no borders". "The joint commitment against the pandemic can lead everyone to recognise our need to strengthen our fraternal ties as members of one human family," the pontiff said.
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli parliament will select a new speaker on Thursday after the Supreme Court forced the vote amid an unprecedented challenge to Israeli democracy and as the country is battling against the rapid spread of coronavirus. A new speaker from the opposition Blue and White party will deal a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he tries to cling to power while averting a looming corruption trial. Outgoing Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein resigned in protest Wednesday. A close Netanyahu ally, Edelstein had refused to comply with a high court order to convene the plenum for a vote on his successor the same day, angrily accusing the court of an “arrogant intervention” in the legislative branch. Even in stepping down, Edelstein tried to stall the vote for several days, as his resignation would take effect 48 hours later. The court responded by stripping Edelstein of his authorities even before his resignation became official, and ruled overnight that the Knesset s longest-serving member, Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz, can act as interim speaker for the sake of the vote. In her ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut lambasted Edelstein for his “unprecedented violation of the rule of law,” warning that it posed a dire threat to the rule of law. “Until today, we have never seen a case in state history of a ruling figure openly and brazenly defying a court order by saying his conscience wouldn t allow it,” she announced. “If this is how a person of authority behaves, why should the citizen behave otherwise?” The confrontation comes just as the government enacted new restrictions requiring Israelis to almost completely stay at home, under threat of fines. In a televised address, Netanyahu warned that if citizens didn t obey the stringent guidelines, a total lock-down would be imposed. Nearly 2,500 Israelis have been infected by the new virus, with 41 in serious condition. Six elderly Israelis with preexisting medical conditions have died and there are growing fears that Israel s medical system will eventually be overwhelmed. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in two weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or even death. The virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those showing no symptoms. Netanyahu s caretaker government has passed a series of emergency executive measures to try and quell the spread of the new virus. They have included authorizing unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens and a slowdown of court activity that forced the postponement of Netanyahu s own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges. The global pandemic erupted in Israel immediately on the heels of the country s third inconclusive election in less than a year and at the height of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu s opponents and supporters. It came to a boil with Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident and longtime lawmaker, who cited restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus in suspending parliamentary activity. But opponents accused him of clinging to his seat even though he lacked majority support in order to shield his party leader Netanyahu from legislation that would limit his lengthy rule. Netanyahu s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election, but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies, won only the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in parliament. Opposition leader Benny Gantz is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset and has been pushing for the country s legislature to continue functioning at such a critical time, even without a permanent government in place. Due to deep ideological divisions within the opposition, it appears unlikely that Gantz will succeed in forming an alternative government. But the bloc is unified in their opposition to Netanyahu and appear determined to cooperate to provide government oversight and pass legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from remaining in the prime minister s post. Parliament is expected to approve Meir Cohen of Gantz s centrist Blue and White party late Thursday as the new Knesset speaker. That would allow the bloc to proceed with planned legislation that includes a ban on indicted politicians, such as Netanyahu, from serving as prime minister. With the number of coronavirus cases rising, and the tide turning against him in parliament, Netanyahu reiterated his call late Wednesday for Gantz to join him in an emergency unity government devoted to battling the virus crisis, despite the bad blood between them “I know that there is considerable unrest in all parts of the people, in both parts of the people. I say as clearly as possible: We must put an end to this,” he said. “We are one people. We are one state and the order of the day is unity.” Gantz, who has pledged outside support to government efforts to combat the virus, has thus far rebuffed Netanyahu s unity offers, deeming them insincere. His allies are concerned that Netanyahu is manipulating the crisis for his own means and will not carry out his promises to relinquish power within 18 months. But following a live televised plea from Israel s largely ceremonial President Reuven Rivlin late Wednesday, the two spoke by phone and instructed their teams to resume talks. “Find a way to present a shared leadership, a responsible leadership, for Israeli society in its time of crisis,” Rivlin appealed. “We simply do not have an alternative. Join together for the good of the Israeli people. If not now, when?”
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish prosecutors have formally charged two former aides of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and 18 other Saudi nationals over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, officials said Wednesday. A statement from the Istanbul chief prosecutor s office said it has completed its investigation into Khashoggi s grisly killing at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and has indicted 20 Saudi nationals. The killing drew international condemnation and cast a cloud of suspicion over Prince Mohammed. All suspects however, have left Turkey and Saudi Arabia has rejected Turkish calls for their return to face trial in Turkey. Riyadh insisted the kingdom s courts are the correct place for them to be tried and has put 11 people on trial over the killing. The Turkish indictment charges the prince s former advisers, Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Asiri, with “instigating a premeditated murder with the intent of (causing) torment through fiendish instinct,” according to a statement from Chief Prosecutor Irfan Fidan s office. The indictment also calls for life prison sentences for 18 other Saudi nationals charged with carrying out “a premeditated murder with the intent of (causing) torment through fiendish instincts.” Khashoggi, who was a resident of the U.S., had walked into his country s consulate on Oct. 2, 2018, for an appointment to pick up documents that would allow him to marry. He never walked out, and his body has not been found. A team of 15 Saudi agents had flown to Turkey to meet Khashoggi inside the consulate. They included a forensic doctor, intelligence and security officers and individuals who worked for the crown prince s office, according to a report last year by U.N. special rapporteur Agnes Callamard. Turkish officials allege Khashoggi was killed and then dismembered with a bone saw. Fidan s office said the 18 suspects are accused of “acting in consensus from the beginning in line with the decision of taking the victim back to Saudi Arabia and of killing him if he did not agree.” The statement did not provide further details and it was not immediately clear if the suspects would be tried in absentia. The trial in Saudi Arabia last year concluded that the killing was not premeditated, prompting widespread criticism of a “whitewash.” Five people were sentenced to death while three other people were found guilty of covering up the crime and were sentenced to a combined 24 years in prison. Saudi authorities have said al-Qahtani was investigated and had no proven involvement in the killing, while al-Asiri was tried and released because of insufficient evidence. Turkey, a rival of Saudi Arabia, has used the killing on its soil to pressure the kingdom. It apparently had the Saudi Consulate bugged and has shared audio of the killing with the C.I.A., among others. Saudi Arabia initially offered shifting accounts about Khashoggi s disappearance. As international pressure mounted because of the Turkish leaks, the kingdom eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed by rogue officials in a brawl.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel appeared on the verge of a constitutional crisis Tuesday as top members of Benjamin Netanyahu s Likud urged their party colleague and parliament speaker to defy a Supreme Court order to hold an election for the prime minister s successor. After suspending parliamentary activities last week, citing procedural issues and restrictions on large gatherings due to the spread of the coronavirus, Yuli Edelstein on Monday dismissed the court s call to explain his delay in convening the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. It sparked an unprecedented judicial rebuttal, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut ordering him to hold a vote by Wednesday and ruling that “the continued refusal to allow the vote in the Knesset plenum on the election of a permanent speaker is undermining the foundations of the democratic process.” Even after that, at least two Likud Cabinet ministers, including Netanyahu s surrogate interim justice minister, called on Edelstein to defy the order, deeming it a judicial “coup” against Israel s elected officials. Cabinet Minister Yariv Levin led the charge, accusing the court of trampling the principle of separation of powers. He said it was creating “anarchy” and acting as if it “owned the country.” Netanyahu has yet to comment but others in the party, while equally lambasting the high court, called on Edelstein to respect its ruling to avoid a full fledged constitutional crisis at such a sensitive time. The developments marked the apex of an ever-deepening standoff between Netanyahu s opponents and supporters in the wake of the country s third inconclusive election in less than a year and against the backdrop of a series of emergency executive measures enacted to quell the spread of the new virus. The opposition Blue and White party, which is backed by a slim majority in the newly elected Knesset, said the country s legislature must continue to function at such a critical time to provide oversight of the government. The party accuses Netanyahu and his caretaker government of carrying out undemocratic measures amid the crisis, and using it as cover to cling to power. With the country in near-shutdown mode, Netanyahu has already managed to postpone his own pending criminal trial on serious corruption charges and authorize unprecedented electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens. Even amid the health scare, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest what they consider an assault on Israeli democracy. Blue and White is expected to choose a new speaker and use its parliamentary majority to push through legislation that could prevent Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future. The Knesset on Monday voted 61-0 in favor of convening the key Arrangements Committee, which is authorized to create the parliament s other decision-making committees. Later, it approved a half-dozen other temporary committees, including one devoted to the corona crisis. Netanyahu and his allies boycotted the votes to protest what they called a power play that relied on Arab members of parliament. Likud said it would take no part in the “unprecedented destructiveness.” Netanyahu s Likud emerged as the largest party in the March 2 election but along with his smaller religious and nationalist allies only won the support of 58 lawmakers — leaving his right-wing bloc three seats short of the required majority in Parliament. Gantz s majority bloc is deeply divided along ideological lines and unlikely to band together to form an alternative government. But they are determined to oppose Netanyahu and seem willing to cooperate in parliament. Replacing Edelstein on Wednesday appears to be the first step. The parliament speaker informed the court that he will “not agree to an ultimatum” and that “a permanent Knesset speaker has never been elected at a time of such great uncertainty concerning the composition of a future coalition.” He said he would not put the Knesset speaker vote on the agenda until the political situation becomes clearer. Netanyahu has called on his rivals to join him in an emergency unity government to combat the global pandemic, but says that option will be gone if Edelstein is replaced. In Israel, daily life has largely shut down with tens of thousands out of work and all but essential movement out of the home restricted. Cases have been multiplying over the past week, with more than 1,650 people testing positive for the new virus and fears that the spread will soon overwhelm the health system. One patient has died and 31 are in serious condition. Opposition leader Benny Gantz has pledged to support the government in its effort to combat the virus. But he and his allies have been skeptical about Netanyahu s power-sharing overtures, concerned that he will not follow through on his promises to cede power in 18 months. If no compromise or alternative government is found, Israel could once again find itself faced with the prospect of yet another unfathomable election. Given the current state of lock down and fear of contagion it s not clear if that would even be possible.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli forces shot and killed a 32-year-old Palestinian man early on Monday who was hurling rocks at Israeli troops, the Palestinian health ministry and the Israeli military said. The military said it thwarted an attack and opened fire at a number of suspects who were throwing rocks at Israeli vehicles on a highway in central West Bank, near the town of Qaliqilya. It says one of the suspects was killed while another was wounded and escaped. Clashes often erupt in the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians but have dipped considerably since the outbreak of the coronavirus. In Israel, daily life has largely shut down with more then 1,200 people testing positive for the new virus. One patient has died and 24 are in serious condition. In the West Bank, 57 cases have been diagnosed so far, the majority of them in Bethlehem. The Palestinian prime minister has ordered a lock down and in Gaza, two cases have been diagnosed in patients who returned from Pakistan.
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday welcomed positive responses from Libya s warring parties to calls for a humanitarian pause in fighting to allow authorities to respond to the public health challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic. The UN chief “hopes that this will be translated into an immediate and unconditional cessation of hostilities,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. In the chaos that followed the country was divided. A weak UN-recognized administration that holds the capital of Tripoli and parts of the country s west is backed by Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar and Italy as well as local militias. On the other side is a rival government in the east that supports self-styled Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose forces launched an offensive to capture the capital last April and are backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt as well as France and Russia. According to media reports, fear of the new coronavirus is widespread in Libya, with the government announcing a curfew starting Sunday night over concerns of a possible outbreak and Hifter s forces worried that foreign mercenaries fighting alongside them may have the virus. Last month, the UN Security Council endorsed a 55-point road map for ending the war in Libya that 12 key leaders agreed to at a conference in Berlin on Jan. 19. This past week, the UN Mission in Libya and a large number of international groups called on the opposing parties to declare an immediate humanitarian pause in hostilities and halt the transfer of military equipment and personnel into the country to enable a response to the pandemic. Dujarric said the secretary-general welcomed the positive response from the government on March 18 and Hifter s Libyan National Army on March 21 to calls for a humanitarian pause. “Given the already dire humanitarian situation in Libya and the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the secretary-general calls on the parties to join forces to address the threat and to ensure unhindered access of humanitarian aid throughout the country,” the UN spokesman said. Guterres urges both sides to accept the draft cease-fire agreement reached during UN-facilitated talks in Geneva last month, Dujarric said.
Italy has just surpassed China for the most number of deaths related to coronavirus, making it the world s deadliest center of the outbreak. The number of deaths in Italy reached 3,405 on Thursday, the Italian Civil Protection Agency said at a news conference -- 156 more than China s toll, which, according to Johns Hopkins University, stands at 3,249. The total number of cases in Italy rose to 41,035 with 5,322 new cases, officials added. The grim figure comes hours after China marked a major milestone in the battle to limit the spread, reporting no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases for the first time since the pandemic began. As cases ratcheted up, Italy imposed nationwide restrictions similar to those seen in China -- placing more than 60 million people under lockdown. Italy s world-class health system has been pushed to the brink amid the outbreak, especially in the country s north, which has seen the highest concentration of cases. People are being treated in field hospitals and lined up in corridors inside its straining public hospitals. Doctors and nurses are being infected, due to a lack of adequate protection. Italian authorities are considering lengthening school closures beyond April 3, amid rumors of the lockdown also being extended. "I think we are going toward an extension," Italian Education minister Lucia Azzolina said Thursday, adding that schools would reopen once there is "certainty of absolute safety." Corriere della Sera quoted Thursday Italian PM Giuseppe Conte as saying "it is clear" the measures to tackle the outbreak, "both the one that has closed a lot of the country s businesses and individual activities, and the one that concerns the school, can only be extended to the deadline." The Prime Minister s spokesperson told CNN no official decision had yet been taken. Chinese medical experts helping the country deal with the crisis said the measures in the hard-hit Lombardy region are "not strict enough." The situation "is similar to what we experienced two months ago in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of Covid-19," the Chinese Red Cross vice president, Sun Shuopeng, said Thursday in a news conference in Milan, the region s capital. "In the city of Wuhan after one month since the adoption of the lockdown policy, we see a decreasing trend from the peak of the disease," Sun Shuopeng said. "Here in Milan, the hardest hit area by Covid-19, there isn t a very strict lockdown: public transportation is still working and people are still moving around, you re still having dinners and parties in the hotels and you re not wearing masks. We need every citizen to be involved in the fight of Covid-19 and follow this policy." He advised Italians to stop all "economic activities and cut the mobility of people," calling on everyone to just stay at home.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank surged ahead in 2019, a watchdog group said in a report Tuesday, maintaining a rapid pace that has drawn strength from the friendly policies of the Trump administration. Peace Now, a monitoring group that opposes the settlements, said that Israel s average annual construction rate has risen 25% since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Perhaps more significantly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu s government last year approved plans to build thousands of new homes, laying the groundwork for a sharp spike in construction in the coming years. That included an explosion in plans for new settlement projects approved early this year. “In my opinion, they re trying to take advantage of the window of opportunity that they have under the Trump administration, knowing that it might change in a few months,” said Hagit Ofran, a researcher for the group. “There was no such supportive administration for the settlements previously, ever.” Most of the world considers the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, to be occupied territory and Israeli settlements illegal obstacles to peace. In a break from his Republican and Democratic predecessors, Trump has taken a much softer line toward the settlements. Surrounded by a group of advisers with close ties to the settlement movement, Trump s administration declared last year that it did not consider the settlements to be illegal under international law. Then, in January, he unveiled a Mideast plan that envisions placing large parts of the West Bank, including all of the settlements, under permanent Israeli control. The Palestinians, with wide international backing, seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, also captured in 1967, as parts of a future independent state. With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and over 220,000 more in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians say the chances of establishing a state in those territories are quickly dwindling. They have rejected the Trump Mideast plan, saying it would extinguish any remaining hopes of independence. According to the Peace Now figures, Israel began construction on 1,917 new homes in the West Bank last year. That marked a slight dip from 2,100 construction starts in 2018. But overall, Israel has begun construction on an average of 2,267 homes per year since Trump took office, compared to an annual average of 1,807 units during the Obama administration. The construction was scattered throughout the West Bank, including small settlements deep inside the territory. That new annual construction could house roughly an addition 9,000 people per year in settlements, based on Peace Now s estimate of four people per a household. Under Israeli law, settlements must go through several stages of bureaucratic planning before construction begins. According to Peace Now, Israel last year advanced plans to build nearly 8,457 new homes, putting them on track to potentially be built in the coming years — up from 5,618 units last year and 6,742 in 2017. By comparison, Israel advanced plans for a total 4,611 new homes during the final two years of the Obama administration, when ties with the U.S. were strained. Peace Now gathers its data from official Israeli sources and by conducting aerial photography of settlements. Israeli settlement groups, using different sets of measures, have also reported rapid growth in the settler population during the Trump era. Oded Revivi, mayor of the settlement of Efrat and the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settler council, said it was “no secret” that the Trump administration has been more tolerant of construction. Whether the thousands of units in the pipeline are built, he said, will depend on who leads Israel s next government and who wins the U.S. presidential election in November. “If we still have the same players, Netanyahu and Trump, I predict the figures you will see in 2020, or more accurately 2021, will actually be higher than 2019,” he said. Netanyahu, fighting for his political life, took a number of pro-settlement steps while campaigning for re-election early this year. Immediately after Trump unveiled his Mideast plan, Netanyahu vowed to begin annexing the settlements. When the White House balked, he pushed forward a flurry of new settlement plans as he tried to cater to his hard-line base. During the first two months of this year, Israel pushed ahead plans for an additional 7,500 homes — nearly half of them in the sensitive “E1” area, according to Peace Now. Developing that area, jutting deep into the West Bank east of Jerusalem, would hinder Palestinian hopes of creating a contiguous state. Israel has previously refrained from building in E1 due to opposition by prior U.S. administrations. Israel also moved ahead with plans to build over 1,500 units in a contentious area of east Jerusalem. Despite these steps, Netanyahu came up short as the March 2 election ended in deadlock. Netanyahu s rival, Benny Gantz, is now trying to form the country s next government but also appears to face long odds of success. If neither man can cobble together a governing coalition, the country could plunge into a fourth consecutive election, placing Netanyahu s future into question as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges. Trump s future, meanwhile, also is suddenly in question following widespread criticism of the slow U.S. response to the coronavirus crisis. The virus could also play a role in the growth of the settlements in the coming months. An economic slowdown, for instance, could potentially slow demand in the Israeli housing market, including in settlements. In the West Bank, there are also risks from Israelis and Palestinians — who are covered by two different health systems and governments — coming together. Revivi s settlement, for example, is next to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and residents often come into contact with one other. Thousands of Palestinians, including construction workers, work in the settlements. “With all the potential of catching the virus, all these things become a much more relevant issue that needs to be discussed, determined, decided upon and definitely acted upon,” Revivi said.
Mina M. Azer
Corona virus that killed thousands of men putting a challenge to all scientific, cultural and financial achievements of men. Man, who thinks of himself as superior to the rest of the creatures is powerless to stand up to the tiny virus. Under this tragedy, we find people refusing to allow a funeral of a doctor to pass by or to bury her body thinking she is too dangerous for their lives. However, it is known that t