Former Israeli PM Lapid testifies in Netanyahu graft trial

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid arrives to testify at the trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges at the Jerusalem District Court, in east Jerusalem, Monday, June 12, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 12 June 2023
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Former Israeli PM Lapid testifies in Netanyahu graft trial

  • Lapid’s testimony forms part of a case in which Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust over his relationship with Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan

JERUSALEM: Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday testified at a Jerusalem court in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.

Lapid’s testimony forms part of a case in which Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust over his relationship with Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and other wealthy personalities.

According to prosecutors, between 2007 and 2016 Netanyahu allegedly received gifts valued at 700,000 shekels ($195,000), including boxes of cigars, bottles of beverages and jewelry, in exchange for financial or personal favors.

Netanyahu denies any allegations of wrongdoing, saying gifts were only accepted from friends and without him having asked for them.

In October 2019, his lawyers said they had received an expert legal opinion that concluded he had a right to accept gifts from close friends.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, is suspected of promoting a tax project in return that would have brought Milchan millions of dollars. The Finance Ministry has since vetoed this proposal.

Lapid was finance minister when the so-called “Milchan Law” was debated in 2013 and 2014.

The centrist politician preceded Netanyahu as premier before the latter allied with ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties to return to power in November 2022.

The case is one of a series of corruption trials against the veteran politician.

The trial began in May 2020, a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister.


Egypt agrees to send aid trucks through Israeli crossing to Gaza but impact is unclear

Updated 3 sec ago
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Egypt agrees to send aid trucks through Israeli crossing to Gaza but impact is unclear

TEL AVIV, Israel: Egypt said Friday it has agreed to send United Nations humanitarian aid trucks through Israel’s main crossing into Gaza, but it was unclear if they will be able to enter the territory as fighting raged in the southern city of Rafah amid Israel’s escalating offensive there.
Meanwhile, the bodies of three more hostages killed on Oct. 7 were recovered overnight from Gaza, Israel’s army said Friday. The CIA chief met in Paris with Israeli and Qatari officials, trying to revive negotiations for a ceasefire and a hostage release.
Gaza’s humanitarian crisis has spiraled as the UN and other aid agencies say the entry of food and other supplies to them has plunged dramatically since Israel’s Rafah offensive began more than two weeks ago. On Friday, the top UN court — the International Court of Justice — ordered Israel to halt the Rafah offensive, though Israel is unlikely to comply.
At the heart of the problem lie the two main crossings through which around 300 trucks of aid a day had been flowing into Gaza before the offensive began.
Israeli troops seized the Rafah crossing into Egypt, which has been inoperative since. The nearby Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza has remained open, and Israel says it has been sending hundreds of trucks a day into it. But while commercial trucks have successfully crossed, the UN says it cannot reach Kerem Shalom to pick up aid as it enters because fighting in the area makes it too dangerous.
As a result, the UN says it has received only 143 trucks from the crossing in the past 19 days. Hundreds of truckloads have been sitting on the Gaza side of the crossing unretrieved, according to Israeli officials, who say UN manpower limitations are to blame. UN and other aid agencies had to rely on the far smaller number of trucks entering daily from a single crossing in northern Gaza and via a US-built pier bringing supplies by sea.
Humanitarian groups are scrambling to get food to Palestinians as some 900,000 people flee Rafah, scattering across central and southern Gaza. Aid workers warn Gaza is near famine. UNRWA, the main UN agency in the humanitarian effort, had to halt food distribution in Rafah city because it had run out of supplies.
The Egyptian announcement appeared to resolve a political obstacle on one side of the border.
Israel says it has kept the Rafah crossing open and asked Egypt to coordinate with it on sending aid convoys through it. Egypt refused, fearing the Israeli hold will remain permanent, and demanded Palestinians be put back in charge of the facility. The White House has been pressing Egypt to resume the flow of trucks.
In a phone call with US President Joe Biden on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi agreed to allow trucks carrying humanitarian aid and fuel to go to the Kerem Shalom crossing until a solution is found for the Rafah crossing, El-Sisi’s office said in a statement.
But it remained unclear whether the UN will be able to access additional trucks coming from Egypt.
UNRWA did not immediately reply to requests for comment. In a post on social media outlet X on Thursday, it said, “We could resume (food distribution in Rafah) tomorrow if the crossing reopened & we were provided with safe routes.”
Mercy Corps, an aid group operating in Gaza, said in a statement Friday that the offensive had caused the “functional closure … of the two main lifelines” of aid and “has brought the humanitarian system to its knees.”
“If dramatic changes do not occur, including opening all border crossings to safely surge aid into these areas, we fear that a wave of secondary mortality will result, with people succumbing to the combination of hunger, lack of clean water and sanitation, and the spread of disease in areas where there is little medical care,” it said.
Fighting appeared to escalate in Rafah. Bombardment intensified Friday in eastern parts of the city, near Kerem Shalom, but shelling was also taking place in central, southern and western districts closer to the Rafah crossing, witnesses said.
Israeli leaders have said they must uproot Hamas fighters from Rafah to complete the destruction of the group after its Oct. 7 attack.
Hamas-led militants killed around 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducted around 250 others in the Oct. 7 attack. Around half of those hostages have since been freed, most in swaps for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel during a weeklong ceasefire in November.
Israel’s campaign of bombardment and offensives in Gaza has killed more than 35,800 Palestinians and wounded more than 80,200, the Gaza Health Ministry said Friday. Its count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The Israeli military said its troops overnight found the bodies of three people killed in the Oct. 7 attack and subsequently taken into Gaza and counted among the hostages.
The bodies of Hanan Yablonka, Michel Nisenbaum, and Orion Hernandez Radoux were found in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops have been fighting for the past week with Hamas militants, the military said.
The announcement comes less than a week after the army said it found in the same area the bodies of three other Israeli hostages also killed on Oct. 7.
Nisenbaum, 59, was a Brazilian-Israeli from the southern city of Sderot. He was killed in his car as he went to get his 4-year-old granddaughter from a site near Gaza that came under attack by the militants.
Oryon Hernandez Radoux, 30, and Yablonka, 42, a father of two, were both killed as they tried to escape the Nova music festival, where the attackers killed hundreds of people. Hernandez Radoux had been attending the festival with his partner, German-Israeli Shani Louk, whose body was among those found by the army earlier.
Israel says around 100 hostages are still captive in Gaza, along with the bodies of at least 39 more, while 17 bodies of hostages have been recovered.
The group representing the families of the hostages said the bodies had been returned to their families for burial. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country had a duty to do everything to return those abducted, both those killed and those who are alive.
French President Emmanuel Macron gave condolences to the family of Hernández-Radoux, a French-Mexican citizen, saying France remains committed to releasing the hostages.
CIA Director Bill Burns was meeting in Paris on Friday with Israeli and Qatari officials in informal talks aimed at getting hostage and ceasefire negotiations back on track, a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive discussions. Burns is in close contact with Egyptian officials, who like the Qataris have acted as mediators with Hamas, the US official said.
Ceasefire talks ground to a halt at the beginning of the month after a major push by the US and other mediators to secure a deal, in hopes of averting a planned Israeli invasion of the southern city of Rafah. The talks were stymied by a central sticking point: Hamas demands guarantees that the war will end and Israeli troops will withdraw from Gaza completely in return for a release of all the hostages, a demand Israel rejects.

Italy to resume funding for UN agency for Palestinian refugees

Updated 38 min 25 sec ago
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Italy to resume funding for UN agency for Palestinian refugees

  • UNRWA, which coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, has been in crisis after Israel’s allegations

ROME: Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani on Saturday announced Rome would restore funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees as he met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa.
“Italy has decided to resume financing specific projects intended for assistance to Palestinian refugees, but only after rigorous controls that guarantee that not even a penny risks ending up supporting terrorism,” he said.
Tajani said he had informed the visiting premier “that the government has arranged new funding for the Palestinian population, for a total of 35 million euros.”
“Of this, five million will be allocated to UNRWA,” he said in a statement, with the remaining 30 million euros allocated to Italy’s “Food for Gaza” initiative in coordination with UN aid agencies.
UNRWA, which coordinates nearly all aid to Gaza, has been in crisis since January, when Israel accused about a dozen of its 13,000 Gaza employees of being involved in the October attack on Israel by Hamas.
That led many nations, including top donor the United States, to abruptly suspend funding to the agency, threatening its efforts to deliver aid in Gaza, although several have since resumed payments.
An independent review of UNRWA, led by French former foreign minister Catherine Colonna, found some “neutrality-related issues” but said Israel had yet to provide evidence for its leading allegations.
Created in 1949, the agency employs around 30,000 people in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Mustafa was later due to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.


Car blast kills one in Syrian capital: state media

Updated 25 May 2024
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Car blast kills one in Syrian capital: state media

  • Three vehicles caught fire in the area

DAMASCUS: A car explosion killed one person in Damascus on Saturday, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported, without identifying the victim.
Security incidents, including blasts targeting military and civilian vehicles, occur intermittently in the capital of war-ravaged Syria.
Quoting a police official, SANA said “one person was killed when an explosive device exploded in their car in the Mazzeh district.” It did not provide any other details.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor with a network of sources on the ground, said three vehicles caught fire in the area.
The explosion comes against a backdrop of heightened regional tensions, including the war between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Last month, an explosive device went off in a car in Mazzeh, an upscale neighborhood of Damascus, without causing any casualties, SANA reported at the time.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, targeting Iran-backed forces including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement as well as Syrian army positions.


UAE President Sheikh Mohamed embarks on China state visit on May 30

Updated 25 May 2024
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UAE President Sheikh Mohamed embarks on China state visit on May 30

DUBAI: UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan will have a state visit to China on May 30 following an invitation from his counterpart Xi Jinping.

Discussions between the two leaders would mainly be regarding bilateral relations between the two countries, and how to further strengthen their economic, developmental and cultural ties, state news agency WAM reported.

Sheikh Mohamed will also attend celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the UAE and China, and will participate in the 10th Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

The UAE leader will have a two-day state visit to South Korea, prior to his arrival in China, at the invitation of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The two leaders will discuss bilateral ties and explore opportunities for greater collaboration across various sectors including trade, investment, energy and technology.


Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

Updated 25 May 2024
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Israel strikes Rafah after top UN court orders it to halt offensive

  • Israel gives no indication it is preparing to change course in Rafah, insists that the court had got it wrong
  • Top UN court earlier ordered Israel to halt military operations in the southern city

RAFAH: Israel bombed the Gaza Strip, including Rafah, on Saturday, a day after the top UN court ordered it to halt military operations in the southern city as efforts get underway in Paris to seek a ceasefire in the war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) also demanded the immediate release of all hostages still held by Palestinian militants, hours after the Israeli military announced troops had recovered the bodies of three more of the captives from northern Gaza.
The Hague-based court, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ordered Israel to keep open the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which it closed earlier this month at the start of its assault on the city.
Israel gave no indication it was preparing to change course in Rafah, insisting that the court had got it wrong.
“Israel has not and will not carry out military operations in the Rafah area that create living conditions that could cause the destruction of the Palestinian civilian population, in whole or in part,” National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said in a joint statement with Israel’s foreign ministry spokesman.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, welcomed the ICJ ruling on Rafah but criticized its decision to exclude the rest of war-torn Gaza from the order.
Continued fighting
Hours after the ICJ ruling, Israel carried out strikes on the Gaza Strip early Saturday while clashes between the Israeli army and the armed wing of Hamas continued.
Palestinian witnesses and AFP teams reported Israeli strikes in Rafah and the central city of Deir Al-Balah.
“We hope that the court’s decision will put pressure on Israel to end this war of extermination, because there is nothing left here,” said Oum Mohammad Al-Ashqa, a Palestinian woman from Gaza City displaced to Deir Al-Balah by the war.
“But Israel is a state that considers itself above the law. Therefore, I do not believe that the shooting or the war will stop other than by force,” said Mohammed Saleh, also met by AFP in the central Gaza Strip city.
In its keenly awaited ruling, the ICJ said Israel must “immediately halt its military offensive, and any other action in the Rafah Governorate, which may inflict on the Palestinian group in Gaza conditions of life that could bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
It ordered Israel to open the Rafah crossing for humanitarian aid and also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,800 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The Israeli military said the three hostages whose bodies were recovered in north Gaza on Friday — Israeli hostage Chanan Yablonka, Brazilian-Israeli Michel Nisenbaum and French-Mexican Orion Hernandez Radoux — were “murdered” during the October 7 attack and their bodies taken to Gaza.
Truce talks
The court order comes ahead of separate meetings on the Gaza conflict in Paris between the CIA chief and Israeli representatives on one side and French President Emmanuel Macron and the foreign ministers of four key Arab states on the other.
Ceasefire talks involving US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators ended shortly after Israel launched the Rafah operation, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office this week said the war cabinet had asked the Israeli delegation “to continue negotiations for the return of the hostages.”
CIA chief Bill Burns was expected to meet Israeli representatives in Paris in a bid to relaunch negotiations, a Western source close to the issue said.
Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron received the prime minister of Qatar and the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian foreign ministers on Friday “to press for a ceasefire,” according to Cairo.
The French presidency said they held talks on the Gaza war and ways to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The five countries discussed “the effective implementation of the two-state solution,” it added.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopening of the Rafah border crossing as soon as possible, Washington said.
Aid stuck
Israeli ground troops started moving into Rafah in early May, defying global opposition.
Troops took over the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, further slowing sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza’s 2.4 million people.
But on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi agreed in a call with his US counterpart Joe Biden to allow UN aid through the other entry point into southern Gaza, the Kerem Shalom crossing from Israel, the White House said.
The US military has also installed a temporary jetty on the Gaza coast to receive aid by sea that a UN spokesman said had delivered 97 trucks of aid after “a rocky start” a week ago.
The security and humanitarian situation in the territory remains alarming, with a risk of famine, hospitals out of service, and around 800,000 people, according to the United Nations, having fled Rafah in the last two weeks.
UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said the situation had reached “a moment of clarity.”
“Aid workers and UN staff must be able to carry out their jobs in safety,” he posted on social media site X late Friday.
“At a time when the people of Gaza are staring down famine... it is more critical than ever to heed the calls made over the last seven months: Release the hostages. Agree a ceasefire. End this nightmare.”