Beirut Aftermath, Israeli Covid-19 Vaccine, & Fourth Election Looming

August 7, 2020

Beirut Aftermath, Israeli Covid-19 Vaccine, & Fourth Election Looming

August 7, 2020
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Shabbat Shalom!

Today we’re diving into: the devastating explosion in Beirut and its aftermath; Israel’s solidarity and offer of aid; the exacerbating budget crisis and probability of fourth Israeli election; Israel’s easing of coronavirus restrictions; Israeli vaccine to begin human trials; footballer’s antisemitic tweets; Virginia cemetery vandalism; USC student VP’s resignation over bullying; President Trump’s propagation of George Soros conspiracy; Israel’s expanding desalination efforts; and the anniversary of Israel’s unilateral Gaza withdrawal.


Following the devastating explosion, anti-government protests break out as shock turns to fury

Tel Aviv municipality building lit up with the Lebanese flag in solidarity with the victims of the the Beirut port explosion, August 5, 2020. 

Lebanon searches for survivors: We begin this Friday with the event that rocked the world this week: the explosions in Lebanon’s capital that destroyed or damaged approximately half of the entire city. Despite early misinformation about who, if anybody, was behind the explosions, the Lebanese government came to reveal that its own mismanagement of an enormous storage of explosive materials left the city vulnerable to the massive accident. Some early reports advanced conspiracy theories blaming Israel which were immediately corrected, even by Hezbollah officials. Rescue operations have been working to find dozens of people still missing under the rubble in areas near the port. The explosion killed at least 157 people (though the actual count is likely to rise), injured at least 5,000, and left more than 300,000 homeless.
Lebanese people blame the government: It remains to be determined exactly what set the 2,750 tons of haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate aflame. The material was stored in a warehouse after a Russian cargo ship abandoned it in 2013. Sadness and shock have turned to anger as the Lebanese people have blamed the negligence of the notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional government for the calamity. Lebanon has been in a state of collapse for over a year, with poor governance leading to an economic meltdown that has worsened with the coronavirus pandemic. Lebanese security forces broke up an anti-government demonstration on Thursday evening using tear gas.   
French president visits and offers aid with condition of reform: French President Emmanuel Macron paid a visit to Beirut and offered aid, but warned that there would be no blank checks and Lebanon would “continue to sink” unless reform was carried out by its leaders. As Macron toured one of the hardest hit neighborhoods, protesters chanted “The people want to bring down the regime!” Macron called for an independent international inquiry into the cause of the blast. A petition to put Lebanon back under French mandate due to the government’s “total inability to secure and manage the country” has garnered more than 50,000 signatures in 24 hours. France was the former colonial power over Lebanon until its mandate ended and two independent countries emerged in 1946—Syria and Lebanon.
Evidence that government knew of the risks: A Lebanese lawmaker cited public records showing that Lebanese customs officials wrote letters to the courts several times over the course of the past few years asking for guidance on how to dispose of the explosive material. Lebanese authorities have taken 16 individuals into custody, including port and customs officials, as part of the investigation into the explosion. Lebanon’s central bank has ordered a freeze on the accounts of the heads of the Beirut port.
Hezbollah’s connection: Legal documents show that the port has been controlled in large part by the terror group Hezbollah. While there is not yet direct evidence linking the explosions to Hezbollah, Western intelligence officials are scrutinizing the terror group’s heavy use of the Beirut port for smuggling weapons and drugs, as well as their reported long-standing interest in ammonium nitrate. Hezbollah kept three metric tons of ammonium nitrate in a storehouse in London until London police found it in 2015. Just this year, German authorities uncovered a warehouse in southern Germany in which Hezbollah was storing hundreds of kilograms of the substance. Also relevant are Hezbollah’s significant arsenal of explosives, ammunition and missiles, which are reportedly stored, at least in part, in densely populated areas throughout Lebanon. Hezbollah has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, is calling for Lebanon to disarm Hezbollah, in a plan which he had intended to present to the Security Council before the explosion.
Israel’s offer for humanitarian help met with silence: Israel, which borders Lebanon immediately to the south, has offered to send Lebanon medical aid. Several Israeli hospitals have said they will treat people injured in the explosion, as they do for other humanitarian disasters, like some injured in Syria’s civil war. Both countries view the other as an “enemy state,” so the historic offer of aid was relayed through the United Nations. Lebanon has not responded to Israeli offers, but it is expected to refuse the help. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally approved the conveyance of aid, saying “We distinguish between the regimes and the people.” Israeli medical doctors said to the Lebanese government: “Please, please, put politics aside and accept the help we can offer” and President Reuven Rivlin said in Arabic: “We sincerely reach out to offer our aid at this difficult time.” Sources have said that the UN is in talks to open a field hospital in Cyprus, where an international medical team, including Israeli medical staff, could offer support.
Lebanese flag lit up on Tel Aviv municipal building: Tel Aviv Mayor Run Huldai arranged for the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality building to be lit up with the Lebanese flag on Wednesday evening to express solidarity with the Lebanese people. While some in the government commended Huldai’s decision, it was also met with backlash by other Israeli government officials. Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister Rafi Peretz said, “We can and should provide humanitarian assistance to citizens injured in Lebanon but waving the flag of an enemy state in the heart of Tel Aviv is moral confusion. Lebanon has allowed Hezbollah to get stronger and even allows Iran’s terror activity on its land.”


Israel’s budget impasse leads many to believe a fourth election in November is inevitable

Budget crisis is exacerbating: For the first time in years or perhaps ever, there is no timetable or agenda for the upcoming cabinet meeting to be held on Sunday, due to disagreements between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White party. For the past several weeks there has been a pressing and heated dispute between Netanyahu and Gantz over the passage of the country’s budget. Though Netanyahu agreed to a two-year budget in the coalition agreement with Gantz, the Prime Minister is now pushing to pass a budget for only the remainder of this year. Meanwhile, Gantz insists on sticking to the coalition agreement. The Finance Ministry has said that failure to pass a budget may result in a downgrading of Israel’s credit rating.
Gantz pushing bill to prevent election: Many are under the impression that Netanyahu is exacerbating the budget crisis in order to purposefully head to new elections. That way, Gantz will not automatically assume the Prime Minister position next year as laid out in the coalition agreement. Elections will automatically be triggered if the budget is not passed by August 25th; it would be the fourth election in less than 2 years. As the August 25th deadline looms, Gantz is seeking to pass legislation to prevent Netanyahu from running for reelection, which would need to pass before the August 25 deadline. According to a new poll, 68% of the public would blame Netanyahu if the country was forced into another election. If elections were held, polls show a drop in support for Netanyahu’s Likud party and growing support for the right-wing party Yamina headed by Naftali Bennett.
Ultra-Orthodox will “do everything possible” to prevent elections: The ultra-Orthodox parties are acting as unlikely drivers for reconciliation between Netanyahu and Gantz. In a joint statement, two ultra-Orthodox parties said, “we will not cooperate with any initiative to advance the election and will do everything possible to prevent elections.” They also said they would not be inclined to support Netanyahu next time, possibly depriving him of a governing coalition. In an effort to appease the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu is seeking to funnel hundreds of millions of shekels to yeshivot, Jewish religious schools, bypassing the budget process.
PA says contacts underway to resume peace talks:  A chairman of the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah party says that there are tentative processes underway to resume peace talks with the U.S. administration and Israel. Chairman Mahmoud Aloul said vaguely: “There are many parties that are in touch with us and the Americans and Israelis in order to find solutions.” This might indicate a change in position on the part of the Palestinians to participating in peace talks led by the U.S. The PA has boycotted the peace talks since the Trump administration moved the American embassy in Israel to its capital, Jerusalem. Aloul also said that the Palestinians remain opposed to the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Coronavirus weekend restrictions cancelled, and skies are opening: A coronavirus cabinet meeting on Wednesday approved weekend restrictions in place to be lifted, which will allow shopping centers, stores, and public parks to open. The ministers decided that the limited restrictions did little to curb the infection rate. Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said Israel’s infection rate per capita was the highest in the world and that unless it is significantly lowered by September 1, the country will need to consider drastic lockdown measures. The cabinet also decided to allow a greater number of incoming and outgoing flights beginning on August 16th  and will require different quarantine rules depending on where travelers arrive from.
Israeli lab to begin human trials for COVID-19 vaccine: Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Thursday that Israel will begin human testing for a potential COVID-19 vaccine as early as October. The Israel Institute of Biological Research (IIBR) has been working on the vaccine for six months and began animal trials in March. According to Gantz, the trials have been very promising.
Schools to start September 1st: Israeli schools are set to resume on September 1st, as the government approved the Education Ministry’s “Studying Safely” plan, which includes small group and distance learning and the recruitment of thousands of additional teachers. Education Minister Yoav Gallant presented the specifics of the ministry’s plan on Thursday, but warned “It won’t be perfect. We can’t provide full studies for everyone. Not all protection measures will reach every place, and not everything will arrive on the first day of school.”


Twitter again fails to censor dangerous antisemitism, as scapegoating and antisemitic sentiment in U.S. grows

Former football star tweets antisemitism with no repercussions: Larry Johnson, former star of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, tweeted multiple times to his 147,000 followers about a Jewish “cabal” involved with human and sex trafficking, pedophlia, and more. The tweets were in response to the Jewish ESPN host Max Kellerman who, when addressing antisemitism in sports, said, “Jews do not have a plan for world domination.” In reaction to the anger over his posts Johnson said, “I angered ‘Rabbis’ from here to Israel” and went on to use quotes from the Christian bible to disparage Judaism. The antisemitic tweets remain up. 
Two cemeteries in Virginia vandalized: Two cemeteries, one historically Jewish and the other historically Black, in and near Richmond, VA were vandalized with neo-Nazi imagery. In Sir Moses Montefiore Cemetery in Henrico County, which was founded in 1886, the Nazi hate symbol of “777” was sprayed onto graves. The Jewish Community Federation of Richmond said: “These acts of hate degrade and denigrate our way of life. They are designed to stoke fear in the hearts of both Jewish and Black communities. We stand together with our Black neighbors in proclaiming that these cowardly acts have not, and will not break us.” 
Neo-Nazis arrested for hanging “Hitler Was Right” banner: Four neo-Nazis were arrested for hanging a banner reading “Hitler Was Right” on a bridge in Arizona. The banner also included a link to a far-right website promoting racism. The men (they were all men) took smiling photos with the banner and posted them to social media. Authorities did not charge the men with a hate crime—only a misdemeanor for trespassing.
USC student leader steps down after antisemitic attacks: Rose Ritch, Vice President of the University of Southern California’s student government resigned after what she said was a campaign of harassment launched at her by her peers for being a Zionist. Other students smeared her as a racist because of her support of the Jewish state. She wrote: “I have been accused by a group of students of being unsuitable as a student leader. I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist.” Ritch called the attacks on her “antisemitism.” 
President Trump pushes Soros conspiracy theory: In an interview on Fox News, President Donald Trump suggested that Jewish billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros is funding the far-left Antifa movement. Soros has been falsely accused of orchestrating and funding the protests over the police killings of Black people by many people on the far-right, including some Republican politicians. Soros has been the target of antisemitic conspiracy theories for years which employ antisemitic myths that rich and powerful Jews are behind the scenes, controlling and manipulating global events. Conservative groups are even placing ads that call on authorities to “investigate George Soros for funding domestic terrorism and his decades-long corruption.”


Israeli desalination plant

Today we celebrate Israel’s expanding desalination pursuits! Israel—one of the driest countries on earth which was running out of water just a few years ago, now makes more water than it needs. Desalination, the process of removing salt from seawater, used to be expensive and inefficient but Israeli advances in the field have now made the process easy and relatively inexpensive. Israel is now planning to build its seventh water plant and once it is finished, 90% of Israel’s water will come from desalination, an unmatched quantity seen nowhere else in the world.
Today in 2005, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was serving as the Finance Minister at the time, resigned from the Israeli cabinet to protest Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu charged that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza would create a base for Islamic terror and that he could not be a partner to a government threatening the security of Israel. While his followers praised him, others saw this as a way to position himself within the Likud party. Despite Netanyahu’s resignation, the Israeli cabinet gave final approval for Israel’s pullout. The withdrawal commenced on August 15th and in less than a month, Israel had completely evacuated the Gaza Strip. Shortly thereafter, Hamas took over and waged war to destroy Israel, which is still ongoing. Gazan civilians live under a corrupt regime which siphons money to terror projects and steals aid to keep Hamas members rich. The withdrawal from Gaza still provokes angry debate in Israeli society today.

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