News Digest — 3/24/20

IDF, US Holding Air Exercise With F-35 Jets And No Physical Contact – Israel’s Coronavirus Cases Jump To 1,656

The Israeli and US militaries are launching a joint aerial exercise Tuesday (24th) in which F-35 jets are taking part, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The drill was permitted to take place, despite a general ban on international exercises during the coronavirus crisis, because it is being held solely in the air, with no person-to-person contact on the ground the IDF said Tuesday (24th).

The F-35 exercise comes weeks after the US and Israel militaries called off two separate exercises due to the coronavirus pandemic, including one of their largest joint drills, the biennial Juniper Cobra.

The military said the F-35 exercise would begin Tuesday afternoon (24th) and last through Thursday afternoon (26th).  During that time, residents of the area would likely notice fighter jets flying overhead, the IDF said.

The military said the exercise was not in response to any specific threat but was part of its general 2020 training schedule.

Earlier this month the IDF called off the Juniper Cobra exercise – one of the largest international drills – in which thousands of American and Israeli soldiers were due to take part around the world.

The Israeli military also preemptively called off an exercise between American paratroopers stationed out of Italy – one of the countries that has been hardest hit by the disease – and IDF ground forces.  

Meanwhile, Israel’s Health Ministry on Tuesday (24th) reported that the number of Coronavirus patients jumped by 449 since Monday (23rd), bringing the total to 1656.

Thirty-one of the patients are isolated in serious condition, and 47 are in moderate condition.  One Israeli has died from the virus and 49 patients have recovered.



Coronavirus Could Send ‘Thousands’ Of Gazans To Israeli Border

Following the identification of what appears to be the first two coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip – after Palestinians in their 30s and 40s arrived back in Gaza from a visit to Pakistan via Egypt and the Rafah crossing – a World Health Organization (WHO) official arrived in Gaza for a first-hand look at how local health authorities were preparing to handle the arrival of the epidemic.  An outbreak of coronavirus in Gaza would lead to a “catastrophe” the WHO warned.

A senior official in the Palestinian Ministry of Health told Israel Hayom on Sunday (22nd) that there was “close cooperation with Israel in handling the corona epidemic.”

“The cooperation is allowing us to send aid to Gaza, where they understand that we have common interests.  The WHO is helping to deliver testing kits and disinfectants from Israel to Gaza, but there is major concern that if the epidemic spreads and the shaky healthcare system in Gaza collapses, thousands of Palestinians will try to reach the Israeli border,” the official said.  “We are working with the Palestinian security forces and the Israeli defense establishment to prepare for any scenario,” he added.

On Saturday evening (21st), the Ministry of Health in Gaza convened a press conference to report that two corona patients were being treated in a field hospital at Rafah.  Both patients had been in quarantine since entering the Gaza Strip, ministry representatives emphasized.

The Ministry of Health in Gaza has also ordered all restaurants, cafes, and event venues to remain closed until further notice,  Friday prayers at Gaza mosques have also been temporarily stopped.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, authorities in Ramallah have stepped up restrictions on movement for Palestinians.  PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has signed off on a mandatory curfew to ensure that Palestinians do not leave their homes between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.  Only workers in vital sectors – healthcare and security – will be allowed to travel freely in the PA.



Israelis Familiar With Disruptions To Daily Life – Neri Zilber

Missile strikes, terror attacks and sudden outbreaks of war are familiar to Israelis – along with the disruptions to daily life.  The Israeli government began taking measures more than three weeks ago to halt the spread of the coronavirus, well before many Western states.  History helps explain part of the response as to why the Jewish State is ever vigilant and always on guard.

Bounded on one side by the Mediterranean Sea and on others by often hostile neighbors, Israel is sometimes referred to as a “terrestrial island.”  There are only four international border crossings and one real international airport. 310 miles of reinforced metal fencing and concrete walls have been erected in recent years to guard borders in the north, east and south – not including the “security barrier” that separates Israel from much of the Palestinian population.

Like everywhere else, Israelis monitor the daily uptick in infected people with the coronavirus, ponder the economic damage of the near-total shutdown, and wonder when the crisis will end.  Like everyone else, Israelis are simply hunkering down and waiting for the pandemic to pass.



Khamenei Adopts Conspiracy Theory Pinning Virus On US

Iran’s supreme leader refused US assistance Sunday (22nd) to fight the new coronavirus, citing an unfounded conspiracy theory claiming the virus could be man-made by America.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments come as Iran faces crushing US sanctions blocking the country from selling its crude oil and accessing international financial markets.  

But while Iranian officials in recent days have increasingly criticized those sanctions, 80-year-old Khamenei instead chose to traffic in the same conspiracy theory increasingly used by Chinese officials about the new virus, to deflect blame for the pandemic.

“I do not know how real this accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust the US to bring them medication?” Khamenei said.  “Possibly your medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”

He also alleged without offering any evidence that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians which they have obtained through different means.”

“The US might send people as doctors and therapists to come here to see the effect of the poison they have produced in people,” he said.

There is no scientific proof offered anywhere in the world to support Khamenei’s claims.

However, his comments come after Chinese government spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted earlier this month that it “might be the US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.  He said, “be transparent – make public your data! The US owes us an explanation.”

Lijian offered no evidence to support his claim, and, in fact tweeted another allegation Sunday (22nd) trying to link the virus to Italy, similarly hard-hit by the outbreak.

Wuhan is the Chinese city where the first cases of the disease were detected in December.



For The First Time In 17 Years, Sea Of Galilee Is Nearly Full

While Israel and the rest of the world have been focusing on battling the coronavirus pandemic, the Sea of Galilee has reached the highest level in years due to the heavy rains  received this past winter.

The water level currently stands at 687 feet below sea level, only 19 inches short of the Upper Red Line, the point at which a dam would have to be opened to prevent flooding, the Israel Water Authority reported on Monday (23rd).  However, no further rainfall is expected in the coming days, so the chance that the Degania Dam will be opened this year is low.

Monday’s measurement represents a rise of 0.78 inches since Sunday (22nd).

The Water Authority has measured the water level of the Sea of Galilee – Israel’s main freshwater source – daily since 1969.  To date, the lowest level recorded was measured in November 2001, when the lake retreated to a level of 705 feet below sea level, a measurement which has come to be known as the Black Line.

The last time the Sea of Galilee reached the Upper Red Line was the winter of 2003-2004.