Israel begins virus inoculation drive as infections surge

Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on Dec. 19, 2020. (File/AFP)
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Updated 20 December 2020

Israel begins virus inoculation drive as infections surge

  • The country will first immunize health workers, followed by the elderly, high-risk Israelis and those over 60 years old
  • Public opinion polls showing many Israelis are reluctant to receive shots right away

TEL AVIV: Israel on Sunday began its coronavirus inoculation drive, aiming to vaccinate some 60,000 people a day in a bid to stamp out the illness that is once again surging among its population.
The country will first immunize health workers, followed by the elderly, high-risk Israelis and those over 60 years old. Israel says it has secured sufficient doses for much of the country’s 9 million people from both Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccine US authorities approved this week for emergency use.
With public opinion polls showing many Israelis are reluctant to receive shots right away, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would set a “personal example” and insisted on being the first Israeli vaccinated. He received the shot Saturday night.
Netanyahu expressed confidence in the vaccine before rolling up the right sleeve of his black, short-sleeve shirt and receiving the injection. He called it an “exciting moment” that would put Israel on the path to returning to its normal routines. The country’s health minister also received the vaccine Saturday.
Israel has an agreement with Pfizer to secure 8 million doses of the US pharmaceutical company’s vaccine — enough to cover nearly half of Israel’s population since each person requires two doses. Israel reached a separate agreement with Moderna earlier this month to purchase 6 million doses of its vaccine — enough for another 3 million Israelis.
With daily infection numbers trending upward and currently notching just under 3,000 a day, Israeli leaders are again debating whether to impose a third national lockdown since the pandemic began. Many restrictions remain in place from the country’s second lockdown in the fall, with most hotels still shuttered and restaurants open only for delivery and take out. Unemployment remains in the double digits.
Israel has had mixed results in its fight against the virus. Netanyahu was lauded in the spring for sealing borders and locking down the country swiftly, a move that battered the economy but drove down infection rates.
But a hasty and erratic reopening sent confirmed cases soaring in late summer, leading to what at the time was one of the world’s worst outbreaks.
Israel has reported more than 368,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 virus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.


Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

Updated 23 June 2021

Iran says US websites seizure unhelpful for nuclear talks

  • Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression
  • EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran warned Wednesday that Washington's seizure of 33 websites run by Iran-linked media was "not constructive" for ongoing talks on bringing the United States back into a landmark nuclear deal.
The US Justice Department said it had seized 33 Iranian government-controlled media websites, as well as three of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah, which it said were hosted on US-owned domains in violation of sanctions.
Iran's state broadcaster accused the US of repressing freedom of expression, while the president's office questioned the timing of the move as talks on bringing Washington back into the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and major powers are reportedly making headway.
"We are using all international and legal means to... condemn... this mistaken policy of the United States," the director of the president's office, Mahmoud Vaezi, told reporters.
"It appears not constructive when talks for a deal on the nuclear issue are under way."
The 2015 deal saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear activities in return for an easing of sanctions, but in 2018 then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the agreement and ramped up sanctions, prompting Iran to pull back from its own commitments.
Trump's successor Joe Biden has signalled his readiness to return to the deal and state parties -- also including Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia -- have been negotiating its revival in Vienna since early April.
EU negotiator Enrique Mora said on Sunday that those involved in the talks were "closer" to saving the Iran nuclear deal but that sticking points remain.
The US action also comes just after Iranians chose ultraconservative cleric Ibrahim Raisi as president in an election the US State Department characterised as neither free nor fair.
Visitors to leading Iranian media sites like Press TV and Al-Alam, the country's main English- and Arabic-language broadcasters, as well as the Al-Masirah TV channel of Yemen's Huthis, were met with single-page statements declaring the website "has been seized by the United States government" accompanied by the seals of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Commerce Department.
The 33 websites were held by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU), itself controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force (IRGC).
Both the IRTVU and IRGC have been placed on the US sanctions blacklist, making it illegal for Americans, US companies, and foreign or non-American companies with US subsidiaries to have business with them or their subsidiaries.
Kataeb Hezbollah, the Iraqi group which owned three sites that were seized, is a hardline military faction with close ties to Tehran that Washington has formally designated a terror group.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the immediate parent of Al-Alam, reported that other web domains, including Palestine-Al Youm, a Palestinian-directed broadcaster, and an Arabic-language religious and cultural channel were among those seized.
Bahrain's LuaLua TV, a channel run by opposition groups with offices in London and Beirut, was also frozen by the United States, according to an AFP correspondent in the region.
IRIB accused the US of repressing freedom of expression and joining forces with Israel and Saudi Arabia "to block pro-resistance media outlets exposing the crimes of US allies in the region."
TV stations such as Press TV and Al-Alam switched to .ir domains and their websites remained accessible. They are also still present on social media, mainly Twitter, and their broadcasts have continued uninterrupted.
On the website of their political wing, the Huthis branded the action "American piracy and copyright confiscation".
"The government of the United States of America is banning the Al-Masirah website without any justification or even prior notice," they said.
Al-Masirah quickly established a new website, using its name but swapping the .net domain for .com.
Meanwhile LuaLua and Al-Masirah continued to broadcast new programs, AFP journalists said.
IRTVU was designated for sanctions last year for "brazen attempts to sow discord among the voting populace by spreading disinformation online and executing malign influence operations aimed at misleading US voters," the Justice Department said.
"IRTVU and others like it, disguised as news organisations or media outlets, targeted the United States with disinformation campaigns and malign influence operations," it said in a statement.
US officials meanwhile have tied Kataeb Hezbollah to rocket and other attacks on sites in Iraq where American soldiers and diplomats reside, and say the group is supported by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The Justice Department did not identify the US company or companies which owned the domains that hosted the websites, or explain how they had been able to host them contrary to sanctions.

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Germany hosts conference to push for progress in Libya

Updated 23 June 2021

Germany hosts conference to push for progress in Libya

  • The meeting is held at the foreign ministry in Berlin
  • German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that much has been achieved in the past two years

BERLIN: Germany and the United Nations are bringing together representatives of Libya with powers that have interests in the country at a conference Wednesday which aims for progress toward securing elections in the North African nation and the removal of foreign fighters.
The meeting at the foreign ministry in Berlin, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken among those expected to attend, follows up on a January 2020 conference where leaders agreed to respect an arms embargo and to push the country’s warring parties to reach a full cease-fire. Germany has tried to act as an intermediary.
Countries that have been involved in the process include the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Italy, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Ahead of the conference, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that much has been achieved in the past two years. An October cease-fire agreement that included a demand that all foreign fighters and mercenaries leave Libya within 90 days led to a deal on elections that are due to be held on Dec. 24 and a transitional government that took office in February.
But “many challenges still lie ahead of us,” said Maas, who met Libya’s transitional prime minister and foreign minister on Tuesday evening. “For the further stabilization of the country, it is crucial that elections take place as planned and that foreign fighters and mercenaries really do leave Libya.”
He added that Wednesday’s conference launches a new phase “in which we no longer only talk about Libya, but in which we are now speaking with Libyan men and women about the future of their country.”
Libya descended into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and later killed longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The oil-rich country was long divided between a UN-supported government in the capital, Tripoli, and rival authorities based in the country’s east, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
In April 2019, eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his forces launched an offensive to try to capture Tripoli. Haftar’s 14-month campaign collapsed after Turkey stepped up its military support of the UN-backed government with hundreds of troops and thousands of Syrian mercenaries.


Iran likely had failed rocket launch, preparing for another

Updated 23 June 2021

Iran likely had failed rocket launch, preparing for another

  • Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies show preparations at the spaceport on June 6
  • As with other failed launches, Iranian state media did not acknowledged it took place

DUBAI: Iran likely conducted a failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket in recent days and now appears to be preparing to try again, the country’s latest effort to advance its space program amid tensions with the West over its tattered nuclear deal.
Satellite images, a US official and a rocket expert all confirmed the failed launch, earlier this month, at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province. The attempt comes as Iran’s space program has suffered a series of high-profile losses, while its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard runs its own parallel program that launched a satellite into orbit last year.
As with other failed launches, Iranian state media did not acknowledged it took place. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday.
Satellite photos from Planet Labs Inc. and Maxar Technologies show preparations at the spaceport on June 6. Those images include what appears to be fuel tanks alongside a massive white gantry that houses a rocket, while scientists fuel it and prepare for launch. Before the launch, workers tow the gantry away to expose the rocket.
The number of fuel tanks, based on their size, appear to have been enough to fill the first and second stages of an Iranian Simorgh rocket, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The Simorgh is a satellite-carrying rocket that has been launched from that same area of the spaceport, he said.
Later satellite images on June 17 showed a decrease in activity at the site. Lewis said analysts believe Iran launched the rocket at some point in that window.
“Nothing had blown up. There wasn’t a giant stain — like they had dumped the fuel — and the vehicles had kind of just moved around,” he said. “The overall level of activity at the site was much lower. So to our mind, that looked like a launch.”
CNN, which first reported on the failed launch, quoted Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Uriah Orland saying that “US Space Command is aware of the Iranian rocket launch failure which occurred early June 12.” Orland did not elaborate. The Pentagon and US Space Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Wednesday from The Associated Press.
It wasn’t immediately clear why Iran would have picked June 12 for a launch as Tehran typically schedules such launches for national commemorations. However, it did come in the run-up to Iran’s presidential election last week, in which the Islamic Republic had hoped to boost turnout.
On Sunday, a new satellite image from Planet Labs showed renewed activity at the site. The image shows a mobile platform previously used to secure a Simorgh rocket at the gantry, a support vehicle seen at previous launches and a new line of fuel containers lined up at the site. Lewis said the equipment suggests that another launch is imminent.
Over the past decade, Iran has sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The program has seen recent troubles, however. A failed launch this month would be the fourth in a row for the Simorgh program. A separate fire at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in February 2019 also killed three researchers, authorities said at the time.
A rocket explosion in August 2019 drew even the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who later tweeted what appeared to be a classified surveillance image of the launch failure. The successive failures raised suspicion of outside interference in Iran’s program, something Trump himself hinted at by tweeting at the time that the US “was not involved in the catastrophic accident.” But Lewis said such failures are common, especially when trying to put objects carefully into orbit around the Earth.
Meanwhile, the Guard in April 2020 revealed its own secret space program by successfully launching a satellite into orbit. The head of the US Space Command later dismissed the satellite as “a tumbling webcam in space” that wouldn’t provide Iran vital intelligence — though it showed Tehran’s ability to successfully get into orbit.
The launch comes after the landslide election of Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s hard-line judiciary chief tied to the mass execution of thousands in 1988. The vote saw the lowest turnout in a presidential election since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Raisi will take over from Iran’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who guided Tehran into its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018, setting in motion months of tensions in the wider Mideast that continue today. Diplomats in Vienna now are negotiating a way for both Iran and the US to re-enter the deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its nuclear enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
The US has alleged such satellite launches defy a UN Security Council resolution and called on Iran to undertake no activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Iran, which long has said it does not seek nuclear weapons, previously maintained that its satellite launches and rocket tests do not have a military component. US intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran abandoned an organized military nuclear program in 2003.
The Simorgh, however, is far too large and too slow to fuel to be a good carrier for a nuclear-tipped weapon, Lewis said.
“It’s a butter knife,” he added. “Could you stab someone with a butter knife? Yeah, but that’s not really the tool.”


Lebanon again raises price of bread amid crippling crisis

Updated 22 June 2021

Lebanon again raises price of bread amid crippling crisis

  • 18% hike from the last raise in February was after the central bank's ending of sugar subsidies
  • Lebanon is grappling with the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s economy ministry on Tuesday raised the price of subsidized bread for the fifth time in a year as the country’s multiple crises worsen with no resolution in sight.
The ministry said the reason behind the latest increase — an 18 percent hike from the last raise in February — was the central bank’s ending of sugar subsidies, which in turn adds to the cost of bread production.
Lebanon is grappling with the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history — one that the World Bank has said is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in the past 150 years. The currency has lost 90 percent of its value, breaking a record low earlier this month of 15,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the black market. The official exchange rate remains 1,507 pounds to the dollar.
The World Bank said in a report this month that Lebanon’s gross domestic product is projected to contract 9.5 percent in 2021, after shrinking by 20.3 percent in 2020 and 6.7 percent the year before.
The central bank has been cutting back on financing imports at subsidized dollars, as foreign currency reserves have dropped dangerously low, from $30 billion at the start of the crisis in late 2019, to nearly $15 billion currently. That has prompted merchants to either raise prices or stop imports.
Most Lebanese have seen their purchase power drop and their savings evaporate, and more than half the tiny country’s population now lives below the poverty line.
The government in June last year raised the price of flatbread, a staple in Lebanon, by more than 30 percent — for the first time in a decade. It has since raised the price three times before Tuesday.
The Ministry of Economy says 910 grams (2 pounds) of bread will be sold for 3,250 pounds. It used to be sold for 2,750 pounds before the latest increase.
Lebanon is going through severe shortages in gasoline, medicines — both still subsidized by the state — and other vital products. Electricity cuts last for much of the day and people wait in line for hours to fill up their cars. Shootings and fistfights have broken out at gas stations, leaving several people injured.
One of the reasons behind the gasoline shortage is smuggling to neighboring Syria, which struggles with its own gasoline shortage but where the price is nearly five times that in Lebanon.
A fuel distributors representative, Fadi Abu Shakra, said 140 gas station owners refused to receive gasoline on Tuesday because of the problems they are facing, including threats, blackmail and beatings.
“They cannot protect themselves,” he said, and called on security forces to protect gas stations, according to state-run National News Agency.


Palestinians, Jewish settlers clash in tense Jerusalem neighborhood

Updated 22 June 2021

Palestinians, Jewish settlers clash in tense Jerusalem neighborhood

  • Settler groups are trying to evict several Palestinian families
  • Threatened evictions fueled protests and clashes in the runup to last month’s 11-day Gaza war

JERUSALEM: Palestinians and Jewish settlers hurled stones, chairs and fireworks at each other overnight in a tense Jerusalem neighborhood where settler groups are trying to evict several Palestinian families, officials said Tuesday.
The threatened evictions fueled protests and clashes in the runup to last month’s 11-day Gaza war and pose a test for Israel’s new governing coalition, which includes three pro-settler parties but is hoping to sideline the Palestinian issue to avoid internal divisions.
Israeli police and border officials said they arrested four suspects in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It was unclear who started the brawl. One woman was reportedly injured when she was hit in the back by a stone, police said.
The Red Crescent emergency service said its crews treated 20 Palestinians, including 16 suffering from pepper spray and tear gas and others wounded by rubber-coated bullets. Two other people were wounded, including an elderly man who was hit in the head, it said.
The Red Crescent said settlers threw stones at one of its ambulances and Israeli forces sprayed skunk water on a second ambulance belonging to the service.
The eruption of violence is the latest friction in Sheikh Jarrah, where weeks of unrest captured international attention ahead of the 11-day Israel-Hamas war last month. The cease-fire took effect on May 21, but the long-running campaign by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families continues.
And so the cycle of tension endures, in a stark early test for Israel’s new coalition government, which is just over a week old.
At the helm under a rotation agreement is Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party. In two years, he’ll be replaced by Yair Lapid, leader of centrist Yesh Atid. And leading the opposition is Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, ousted from the premiership after holding the post for 12 years.
An intervention by Israel’s attorney general at the height of the unrest has put the most imminent evictions on hold. But rights groups say evictions could still proceed in the coming months as international attention wanes, potentially igniting another round of bloodshed.
The settlers have been waging a decades-long campaign to evict the families from densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods in the so-called Holy Basin just outside the walls of the Old City, in one of the most sensitive parts of east Jerusalem.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, in the 1967 war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. Israel views the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
The settlers say the homes are built on land that was owned by Jews prior to the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim such property, a right denied to Palestinians who lost lands and homes in the same conflict.