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Crush at Israeli religious festival kills 44

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(Last Updated On: April 30, 2021)

At least 44 people were crushed to death at an over-crowded religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “heavy disaster”.

The crush occurred as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings.

Helicopters ferried injured people to hospitals and the military said search-and-rescue troops were scrambled.

Medics said 103 people had been injured in what they described as a stampede. Casualties included children, witnesses said. The site is mostly gender-segregated and bystander video suggested the crush took place at one of the men’s sections.

“We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” Shlomo Katz, 36, told Reuters. He then saw ambulances come out “one after the other”.

Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush. Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.

A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned-off as a COVID-19 precaution. That may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic, Israeli media said.

One pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV: “We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness.”

“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world … If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”

With the site cleared, rescue workers collapsed against railings, some weeping as their colleagues comforted them.

Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster”, adding on Twitter: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”

The White House and European Union offered condolences.

As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered.

The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54% of the population fully vaccinated.

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Israel-Gaza conflict rages on, diplomacy yet to gain traction

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: May 15, 2021)

Israel pummelled Gaza with air strikes and Palestinian militants launched rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and other cities on Saturday, with no sign yet of an end to the worst escalation in years in the region, almost a week into the conflict.

Reuters reported, US and Arab diplomats are seeking to calm the situation. Violence overnight saw militants fire about 200 rockets at cities in Israel, whose planes struck what it said were targets used by Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza.

At least 139 people, including 39 children, have been killed in Gaza since hostilities erupted on Monday, Palestinian medics said.

Israel has reported nine dead, including children.

On Saturday afternoon, al Jazeera meanwhile reported Israel had given a “warning” that it will bomb the building that houses Al Jazeera offices and other international media channels in Gaza City in one hour.

Reuters meanwhile reported that the Israeli bombardment overnight killed more than 15 Palestinians in Gaza, medics said, including a woman and four of her children who died when their house in a refugee camp was hit. Five others died, with others wounded, the medics said.

Israel’s military said about the incident that it had hit an apartment in the Beach refugee camp used by Hamas. It said details of the case were under review.

In Israel, thousands of Israelis ran for shelter. Sirens wailed repeatedly across Tel Aviv on Saturday. One rocket struck a residential building in the commercial hub’s suburb of Ramat Gan, killing one person there, medics said, Reuters reported.

In Gaza, Akram Farouq, 36, dashed out of his home with his family after a neighbour told him they had received a call from an Israeli officer warning that their building would be hit.

“We haven’t slept all night because of the explosions, and now I am out in the street with my wife and children, who are weeping and trembling,” he said.

Israel’s military said its aircraft struck rocket launch sites and apartments belonging to Hamas militants.

Regional and international diplomatic efforts have yet to show any signs of halting hostilities. Egypt, which has been leading regional efforts, sent ambulances across its border with Gaza to bring Palestinian casualties to Egyptian hospitals.

Israel’s military said on Saturday about 2,300 rockets had been fired from Gaza at Israel since Monday, with about 1,000 intercepted by missile defences and 380 falling into the Gaza Strip.

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Colonial Pipeline paid hackers nearly $5 million in ransom: Bloomberg News

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(Last Updated On: May 14, 2021)

Colonial Pipeline paid nearly $5 million to Eastern European hackers on Friday after a crippling cyberattack that shut the largest fuel pipeline network in the United States, Bloomberg News reported, citing two people familiar with the transaction.

The company paid the ransom in untraceable cryptocurrency within hours after the attack, according to the report.

Colonial Pipeline declined to comment.

Whether targets of such attacks should pay to regain control of their systems is a matter of fierce debate. Critics contend that paying ransom encourages attacks.

U.S. House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday ransom should not be paid by companies that are the victims of cyber attacks.

The hackers provided Colonial Pipeline with a decrypting tool to restore its disabled computer network after they received the payment, but the company used its own backups to help restore the system since the tool was slow, Bloomberg News reported.

After a six-day outage, the top U.S. fuel pipeline, which carries 100 million gallons per day of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, moved some of the first millions of gallons of motor fuels on Thursday.

The shutdown caused gasoline shortages and emergency declarations from Virginia to Florida, led two refineries to curb production and had airlines reshuffling some refueling operations.

The FBI earlier this week accused a shadowy criminal gang called DarkSide for the ransomware attack. The group has not directly taken credit, but on Wednesday it claimed to have breached systems at three other companies.

A terse news release posted to DarkSide’s website did not directly mention Colonial Pipeline but, under the heading “About the latest news,” it noted that “our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society”.

The White House declined to weigh in on Monday whether companies that are hacked such as Colonial Pipeline should pay ransom to their attackers, but a national security official said it may offer some advice in the future.

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Israel targets Gaza tunnels, Palestinian rocket attacks persist

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Photo credit Reuters
(Last Updated On: May 14, 2021)

Israel fired artillery and mounted extensive air strikes on Friday against a network of Palestinian militant tunnels under Gaza, amid persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The largest Israeli operation against a specific target since the conflict began included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed the 40-minute pre-dawn offensive on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

A woman and her three children were killed in Gaza, health officials in the north of the enclave said, and their bodies were recovered from the rubble of their home. An elderly woman in Israel died while on her way to a shelter to shield from the rocket attacks.

Gaza’s ruling Hamas group launched the rocket attacks at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

At least 119 people have been killed in Gaza, including 31 children and 19 women, and 830 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

The death toll in Israel stood at eight: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children – and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

The head of the International Criminal Court warned that individuals involved in the bloodshed may be targeted by its investigation into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict.

In northern and eastern parts of Gaza, the sound of artillery fire and explosions echoed early on Friday.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in northern Gaza.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters.

“We refer to (it) as the Metro,” he said, adding that a final assessment on the outcome of the operation was pending.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas, Gaza’s most powerful Islamist militant group, must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wanted to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

TENSIONS IN ISRAEL

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

“They say Gaza is spiraling out of control, but what is happening here scares me more,” said Majd Abado, an Arab resident of the mixed city of Acre, where people from both communities said they were afraid to leave their homes.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during the Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009. But an incursion looked unlikely, given Israel’s reluctance to risk a sharp increase in military casualties on Hamas turf.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had yet to deliver a sign of progress.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

On the Israeli political front, Netanyahu’s chances to remain in power after an inconclusive March 23 election appeared to improve significantly after his main rival, centrist Yair Lapid, suffered a major setback in efforts to form a government.

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