News Digest — 4/13/20

Mideast Coronavirus Cases Now Above 160,000

There are now more than 160,000 officially registered coronavirus cases across the Middle East.  The number of cases has been increasing at a rate of around 8,000 a day. The largest number of cases are found in Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Many countries in the region report a small number of cases because of inconsistent reporting, leaving it unclear the degree to which official numbers are accurate.

Turkey has had several thousand new cases every day for the past weeks as its number of cases rose to 56,000.  Iran has 71,000 cases and is the worst-hit country in the region. By contrast, many of the Gulf states have a higher number of cases per capita.  For instance, tiny Bahrain has 1,100 and Qatar has 2,000. The Gulf states, despite closing airports and putting in place high-tech means to control the outbreak, have not been able to stop the virus.

In contrast, the Kingdom of Jordan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq have been among the most successful at slowing the growth of COVID-19 to a snail’s pace.  In Jordan, with military-imposed lockdowns, there are 389 registered cases. In Lebanon, there are just over 600 cases reported.

Other countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria lack clarity in their reporting, since they are in the midst of civil war and there is no way to test people in most of the country.  There are also concerns about Egypt and Iraq, two large countries with only 3,000 cases between them. It is unclear if these countries have been able to adequately test or monitor for the virus.  Saudi Arabia, by contrast has 4,400 cases, and acted early to restrict travel and stop pilgrimages.

Now the region must prepare for Ramadan, a time when families usually gather over meals.  On the positive side, the period also includes fasting and staying home watching new TV series.  However there will be questions about how to continue the lockdowns through Ramadan in the region.  There are also concerns that the virus may spread to some vulnerable areas, such as Gaza or to refugee camps for Syrians in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, In Israel on Monday morning (13th), the Health Ministry reports 11,235 people with the coronavirus.  181 are in serious condition with 133 on ventilators. The death toll now stands at 110.



10 Instead Of 100,0000: Coronavirus Hits Passover Blessing At Western Wall

Ten Jewish worshipers wearing facemasks prayed at the Western Wall on Sunday (12th) at Birkat HaCohanim, a special priestly blessing during the holiday of Passover, an event usually attended by thousands.

Because of coronavirus restrictions banning large public gatherings, the group maintained social-distancing at the holy site in Jerusalem’s walled Old City.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman was among the group attending on Sunday (12th).

“Last year I was among 100,000; this year unfortunately, far less.  I will pray that the world is spared further illness or sorrow from Covid-19 or otherwise,” Friedman wrote on Twitter.

The blessing is carried out by members of the Jewish priestly caste, known as Kohanim in Hebrew.

Holding prayer shawls above their heads and covering their faces, they chanted the blessing starting with, “The Lord Blesses you and keeps you.”

Kohanim are thought to be descended from the line of the biblical Aaron who were often referred to as Jewish priests because of their prominent role in worship in Judaism’s two ancient Temples in Jerusalem.

The ceremony is held during the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot.

The Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray in Jerusalem – it was built more than 2,000 years ago by Herod the Great.

The blessing is the latest in a series of religious rituals curtailed, as Israel, like the rest of the world, tries to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

On Wednesday evening (8th), Israeli Jews were confined to their homes in order to prevent mass gatherings on the first night of Passover, traditionally a time for families to celebrate together.



Netanyahu Gains Strength After Rivlin Rebuffs Gantz

Israel’s President on Sunday (12th) rejected a request to extend coalition talks between the country’s two most powerful political parties – appearing to give a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pushing the nation toward an unprecedented fourth consecutive election in just over a year.

The decision by President Reuven Rivlin capped a stunning turnaround in fortunes of Netanyahu, who just a month ago was fighting for his political survival.  His challenger, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz now faces an uphill struggle as he races to salvage a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu.

Rivlin last month gave Gantz the task of forming a new government after a narrow majority of lawmakers endorsed him as prime minister in the wake of March 2 elections.  With his parliamentary majority, Gantz began work on legislation that would have prevented Netanyahu from serving as prime minister in the future.   

But in an abrupt about face, Gantz accepted an invitation from Netanyahu to form a “national emergency” government to confront what was then a burgeoning coronavirus outbreak.

In the meantime, unity talks with Netanyahu stalled.  But on Saturday (11th) Gantz asked Rivlin who is responsible for choosing a prime minister-designate after elections, for a two-week extension, saying he was close to a deal.

On Sunday (12th) Rivlin rejected the request, citing the “current circumstances.”  He said he was giving both Gantz and Netanyahu until the original deadline, at midnight Monday (13th) to reach a deal, and would consider giving them extra time only if both said they were close to an agreement.

The looming deadline, along with the coronavirus crisis, has placed Netanyahu in a much stronger position than before.



Peace Activists Arrested By Hamas After Contacting Israelis

Hamas security forces have arrested several peace activists in the Gaza Strip on treason charges after they took part in a web conference with Israeli activists, according to Hamas’ Interior Ministry.

The activists are accused of “holding a normalization activity with the Israeli occupation” said the ministry’s spokesman Eyad al-Bozom.

“Holding any activity or contact with the Israeli occupation under any cover is a crime punishable by law and is a betrayal for the people and their sacrifices,” he added.

The activists held a nearly two-hour meeting last week over Zoom, an entire conferencing service, discussing issues of common interest, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The meeting was advertised on a Facebook event page and a recording was posted online by Israeli participants, prompting an outpouring of Palestinian incitement against the Gaza activists on social media.

The family of Rami Aman, the main Gaza organizer, said Rami answered a summons from the security service early Thursday (9th) and that they have not heard from him since.

Hamas praised the arrest of Aman and others.

“The relationship with the Zionist occupation is only a continuing fight until it is forced out of all Palestinian lands,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.

Hamas which seized Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, does not recognize Israel and has carried out scores of deadly attacks against Israelis over the last few decades.

Israel, the U.S., and the EU view Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Hamas has nevertheless been holding indirect talks with Israel through Egyptian, Qatari and UN mediators for months.  The negotiations are aimed at easing an Egyptian and Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza after Hamas took over power in the coastal enclave 13 years ago.



ADL: Online Anti-Semitism Could Turn Into Real Danger After Coronavirus Crisis Ends

The coronavirus pandemic has sparked another global outbreak of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Israel Director Carole Nuriel spoke to Arutz Sheva about the threats Jews are facing in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

“The basis of the current anti-Semitism is that Jews are responsible for spreading disease and epidemics around the world, which we know happened before in our history,” Nuriel said.

“At the time of the SARS and swine flu, too,  Jews were accused, not only of causing the plagues, but of exploitation of the diseases for economic gain, and of gaining control of the affected population and of expanding their global control.  All the claims we have known since then are now being repackaged on the occasion of the coronavirus,” she explained.

According to Nuriel, the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories is a cross-border phenomenon just like the spread of the coronavirus itself.  “It is easier today to spread anti-Semitism because of social media accessibility from both anti-Semitic distributors and consumers who are stuck at home more because of the virus.  We see anti-Semitism across the United States and Europe as well, as these people have large support bases.”

“Many times conspiracy theories are made by people who are searching for a force responsible for some phenomenon such as the coronavirus.  In the case of anti-Semites, there is a hatred for the Jewish population, therefore they use the collective anxiety of a virus pandemic to promote anti-Semitism.  That is why there are audiences for these messages,” Nuriel said.

“We fight anti-Semitism 365 days a year, including the days of the coronavirus, and raise these matters to explain that these are baseless allegations.  At this time, when we all sit at home, it is very important to fight it, but we have one eye ahead for the day after the crisis, to the danger when they come back from the online space to the street and pose a danger to Jews all over the world.”