Israel on Brink of 3rd COVID-19 Wave; Emerging Prisoner-Swap Deal with Hamas Causes Uproar

   

Israeli health authorities on Monday for the first time in two-odd months recorded more than 2,000 new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period, sparking concerns that the infection rate could once again spiral out of control and force the government to impose a third national lockdown since March. It comes a day after the Jewish state reached a grim milestone by surpassing 3,000 COVID-19 related deaths.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has entered quarantine until Friday after holding a meeting with a fellow Likud party member who was subsequently diagnosed with the pathogen. This was a precautionary measure given that the Israeli leader had tested negative for the virus on both Sunday and Monday.

Netanyahu has had to self-isolate three times since the onset of the pandemic, and on Saturday is slated to become the first Israeli to receive Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine.

Israel next week is set to launch a major drive to inoculate some 60,000 individuals per day. The country has to date procured just over 300,000 doses of the US pharmaceutical giant’s vaccine and is expected to acquire 3.8 million units – sufficient to immunize 1.9 million people – by the end of December.

   

The chairman of the Israeli parliament’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has denounced as “outrageous” a seemingly emerging prisoner-swap deal with Hamas. Derech Eretz lawmaker Zvi Hauser revealed that Jerusalem was considering allowing hundreds of terrorists “back into circulation” in exchange for two Israelis – Avera Avraham Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – who both suffer from mental illness and entered the Gaza Strip of their own accord more than five years ago.

The Palestinian terrorist organization is also holding the remains of two Israeli combat soldiers, Sgt. First Class Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, both of whom were killed in Gaza during the 2014 war.

Accordingly, Hauser called on Prime Minister to “withdraw from this dangerous move and learn the lessons of the [Gilad] Shalit deal, [whereby] the majority of [t]hose freed returned to terrorism.” The legislator was referring to the 2011 prisoner swap with Hamas in which Israel received one captive soldier in return for releasing over 1,000 jailed Palestinians.

According to Israeli media reports, citing unnamed officials, the Jewish state has not agreed to release Palestinian murderers, but, rather, has offered to supply Hamas with medical aid with a view to containing the intensifying coronavirus outbreak in the coastal enclave.

   

Palestinian Authority President on Monday met in Qatar with the Gulf nation’s head of state, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. According to official PA media, the two leaders discussed “issues of mutual interest,” although other reports claimed that Abbas lobbied Doha to use its influence to pressure the Hamas terror group to hold elections across both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas’ ruling Fatah party and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter ousted the PA from Gaza in a 2007 internecine war, and numerous subsequent reconciliation efforts have failed to bridge the gap. As such, the Palestinian leadership has not held presidential or legislative elections since 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Abbas’ state visit to Doha was his third such trip since the end of November, when he traveled to Amman and Cairo, reportedly to gain support for his push to hold a vote in Palestinian-controlled territories.

Although Qatar has close ties to Iran and has long been accused of funding terrorism, the country maintains relatively good relations with Israel due to Doha’s role in maintaining calm in Gaza and, when tensions flare, mediating cease-fire agreements between the sides.

Qatar’s rulers have also sent tens of millions of dollars to the Hamas-ruled enclave.

   

The United States has officially removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, providing a boost to Khartoum’s transitional authorities who last year assumed power following the ouster of longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir.

Washington blacklisted Sudan in 1993 due to Bashir’s harboring of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Five years later the terror organization orchestrated the dual bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. The designation had prevented Khartoum from receiving financial assistance and investment, while cutting the country off from the global banking system.

According to media, Sudan conditioned normalizing ties with Israel on  Washington’s agreement to delist Kahrtoum. Moreover,  Sudan’s current leader last month reportedly told visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he would similarly not move forward with forging diplomatic relations with Jerusalem unless Congress passed legislation by the end of 2020 granting Khartoum immunity from future terrorism-related lawsuits.

   

As Jews across the globe are celebrating Hanukkah and in the lead-up to Christmas,  Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke on the phone with Pope Francis about holding festivities under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

During the call, Rivlin thanked the pontiff for his friendship and invited him to help inaugurate a project to promote tourism to monasteries and churches located near the Jordan River. According to Christian tradition, the river is where Jesus was baptized.

Last month, Rivlin met with the heads of Christian churches in the Holy Land to discuss ways to ensure that Christmas festivities could be held safely amid the ongoing health crisis.

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