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France Praises YouTubers Over Foiled Effort To Smear The Pfizer Vaccine



Anton

LE PECQ, France (AP) — France’s government offered strong praise Wednesday to YouTubers and other social media influencers who resisted a mysterious effort to recruit them for a smear campaign to spread disinformation to their millions of young followers about the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Multiple France-based influencers with sizable audiences on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms said they were contacted with offers of hush-hush payments to make bogus claims about supposed deadly Pfizer vaccine risks.

YouTuber Léo Grasset, among those contacted, said the shady advertising agency that sought to recruit him “wanted me to talk about the Pfizer vaccine in a way that would be detrimental to the Pfizer vaccine reputation.”

He and others said they refused. They got a thumbs up Wednesday from French government spokesman Gabriel Attal.

“I want to salute the great responsibility of these young YouTubers or influencers who not only didn’t fall for this and didn’t, through cupidity, allow themselves to be manipulated but also denounced it publicly,” Attal said. “I really want to salute that.”

Grasset, who has 1.1 million subscribers on YouTube, said he and other social media and internet content-creators are “at the center of something going on like an information war.”

The person who contacted Grasset identified himself as Anton and said his ad agency has a “quite considerable” budget for what he described as an “information campaign” about “COVID-19 and the vaccines offered to the European population, notably AstraZeneca and Pfizer.”

Specifically, “Anton” asked for a 45- to 60-second video on Instagram, TikTok or YouTube to say that “the mortality rate of the Pfizer vaccine is 3 times greater than the AstraZeneca” and querying why the European Union is buying it.

He refused in a follow-up email to divulge who is financing the campaign, saying: “The client prefers to remain incognito.”

Instructions he sent also said that if influencers agreed to take part then they shouldn’t say that they were being sponsored and should “present the material as your own independent view.”

Grasset shared the email exchanges with The Associated Press. He said that given his large YouTube following, he might have earned tens of thousands of euros (dollars) had he agreed to take part.

Instead, he wrote back that “I can’t work for a client that won’t give its name and who asks me to hide the partnership.”

The AP sent emails requesting comment to a contact address listed on ad agency’s website and to the email address used by “Anton.” Neither elicited a response.

The Associated Press was not immediately able to determine who hosts the website of Fazze.com. Internet records show that the San Francisco firm Cloudflare provides cybersecurity protection for the site against denial-of-service and other attacks, effectively masking its host to public scrutiny. A Cloudflare spokesman said the U.S. company does not host Fazze.com and did not say who does.

Social media users in Germany also claimed to have been contacted for the disinformation campaign. German authorities said officials were discussing the incident at the international level.

“There is an exchange between the European authorities concerned,” Christofer Burger, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Berlin.

“They are part of a network that has regular contact about cases of disinformation and also about how to deal with individual incidents,” he said, without elaborating.

Frank Bajak in Boston and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.





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Italian Cable Car Plunges To The Ground, Killing At Least 14


ROME (AP) — A cable car taking visitors to a mountaintop view of some of northern Italy’s most picturesque lakes plummeted to the ground Sunday and then tumbled down the slope, killing 14 people. A young child was hospitalized in serious condition with broken bones, authorities said.

Stresa Mayor Marcella Severino said it appeared that a cable broke, sending the car careening until it hit a pylon and then fell to the ground. At that point, the car overturned “two or three times before hitting some trees,” she said. Some of those who died were thrown from the cabin.

The Italian government announced a commission to investigate the disaster, which is likely to renew questions about the quality and safety of Italy’s transport infrastructure.

Images from the site showed the crumpled car in a clearing of a thick patch of pine trees near the summit of the Mottarone peak overlooking Lake Maggiore. The car was believed to have fallen around 50 feet, according to Italian media.

“It was a terrible, terrible scene,” Severino told Italy’s SkyTG24.

Italian fire fighters are seen near the crashed cable car after it fell from the Stresa-Alpine-Mottarone line near Lake Maggi



Italian fire fighters are seen near the crashed cable car after it fell from the Stresa-Alpine-Mottarone line near Lake Maggiore in Stresa, Italy on May 23, 2021. (Photo by Italian Fire Department/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The plunge on the the Stresa-Mottarone line happened about 320 feet before the final pylon, said Walter Milan, spokesman for Italy’s Alpine rescue service.

By Sunday evening, the death toll had risen to 14 dead after one of two children taken to Turin’s Regina Margherita children’s hospital died. The child died after several attempts to restart his heart failed and “there was nothing more we could do,” said hospital spokesman Pier Paolo Berra. The other young child, who arrived at the hospital conscious, remained in serious condition, authorities said.

Milan noted that the cable line had been renovated in 2016 and had only recently reopened after coronavirus lockdowns in Italy curtailed travel and forced the suspension of many leisure activities. Milan suggested many families may have flocked to the mountain on a sunny Sunday after months of restrictions.

The line is popular with tourists and locals alike to scale Mottarone, which reaches a height of 4,900 feet and overlooks several picturesque lakes and the surrounding Alps of Italy’s Piedmont region.

The mountain hosts a small amusement park, Alpyland, that has a children’s rollercoaster, and the area also has mountain bike paths and hiking trails.

Premier Mario Draghi offered his condolences to the families of the victims “with a particular thought about the seriously injured children and their families.”

Sunday’s tragedy appeared to be Italy’s worst cable car disaster since 1998 when a low-flying U.S. military jet cut through the cable of a ski lift in Cavalese, in the Dolomites, killing 20 people.

Italy’s transport minister, Enrico Giovannini, announced a commission to look into the tragedy and said he had already requested data on the maintenance work and inspections done on the line in the past. He planned to visit the site Monday.

While the cause hasn’t been determined, the disaster was likely to raise questions about Italy’s transport infrastructure. In 2018, the Morandi bridge in Genoa collapsed after years of neglect, killing 43 people.

In 2009, a freight train carrying gas derailed at the Viareggio station, near Lucca, and exploded, killing 32 people. Poorly maintained axels of the train were blamed.

President Sergio Mattarella, in offering his condolences, called for the “rigorous respect of all security norms” in transportation.





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AP’s Top Editor Calls For Probe Into Israeli Airstrike Of Press Building


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Associated Press’ top editor on Sunday called for an independent investigation into the Israeli airstrike that targeted and destroyed a Gaza City building housing the AP, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and other media, saying the public deserves to know the facts.

Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, said the Israeli government has yet to provide clear evidence supporting its attack, which leveled the 12-story al-Jalaa tower.

The Israeli military, which gave AP journalists and other tenants about an hour to evacuate, claimed Hamas used the building for a military intelligence office and weapons development. Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Israel was compiling evidence for the U.S. but declined to commit to providing it within the next two days.

A thick column of smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Saturday. 



A thick column of smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Saturday. 

“We’re in the middle of fighting,” Conricus said Sunday. “That’s in process and I’m sure in due time that information will be presented.”

Buzbee said the AP has had offices in al-Jalaa tower for 15 years and never was informed or had any indication that Hamas might be in the building. She said the facts must be laid out.

“We are in a conflict situation,” Buzbee said. “We do not take sides in that conflict. We heard Israelis say they have evidence; we don’t know what that evidence is.”

“We think it’s appropriate at this point for there to be an independent look at what happened yesterday — an independent investigation,” she added.

Palestinians inspect the remains of Al-Jalaa tower, which housed several media outlets including The Associated Press and Al



Palestinians inspect the remains of Al-Jalaa tower, which housed several media outlets including The Associated Press and Al Jazeera, after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday repeated Israel’s claim that the building housed an intelligence office of Hamas. Asked if he had relayed supporting evidence of that in a call with President Joe Biden on Saturday, Netanyahu said “we pass it through our intelligence people.”

Buzbee said the AP journalists were “rattled” after the airstrike but are doing fine and reporting the news. She expressed concern about the impact on news coverage.

“This does impact the world’s right to know what is happening on both sides of the conflict in real time,” she said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone Saturday with AP’s president and CEO, Gary Pruitt. The State Department said Blinken offered “his unwavering support for independent journalists and media organizations around the world and noted the indispensability of their reporting in conflict zones.”

Buzbee and Conricus spoke on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and Netanyahu was on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”



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BBC Journalist Martin Bashir Steps Down As Report On Princess Diana Interview Looms


Martin Bashir has left the BBC as the broadcaster prepares to release a report on how the journalist secured a bombshell 1995 television interview with Princess Diana.

He had been on sick leave for several months.

Bashir is accused of tricking the royal into speaking with him on “Panorama,” a British news program, by forging documents in order to manipulate her. During the interview, Diana revealed unhappy details of her marriage to Prince Charles, which had by then broken down past the point of repair but was still a year away from a formal end. She publicly affirmed that Charles had an intimate relationship with his longtime friend Camilla Parker-Bowles ― causing a crisis at the palace. 

“There were three of us in this marriage,” Diana said, “so it was a bit crowded.”

Martin Bashir interviewed Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the television program "Panorama" in 1995. (Photo by ©



Martin Bashir interviewed Princess Diana in Kensington Palace for the television program “Panorama” in 1995. (Photo by © Pool Photograph/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

The BBC’s deputy director of news, Jonathan Munro, said Friday in a memo to staff that Bashir “let us know of his decision last month, just before being readmitted to hospital for another surgical procedure on his heart,” according to The New York Times, which obtained a copy.

Munro went on to say that Bashir had “major surgery” in late 2020 and was still “facing some ongoing issues,” prompting his decision “to focus on his health.”

The BBC announced in November that it was launching an investigation into how Bashir secured the interview after Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother, alleged the journalist had used deceptive tactics. Tim Davie, the BBC’s director general, said at the time that the broadcaster was taking the accusations “very seriously.”

Prince William, Diana’s son, welcomed the investigation and said it “should help establish the truth.”

A 1996 probe into how Bashir convinced Diana to sit down with him supposedly cleared the journalist.

However, Spencer maintains that Bashir made a series of bogus claims that led him to introduce the journalist to his sister. According to Spencer, Bashir said Diana was being bugged by security services and that two senior aides were being paid to provide information about her ― even producing bank statements as purported evidence. Matt Weissler, a graphic designer, came forward last year to say he had mocked up the documents on Bashir’s request, believing they would be used as film props. 

Lord John Dyson, a retired British judge, was appointed to conduct the new probe. A spokesman for the BBC told HuffPost it “will be published soon.” 

The BBC apologized for the falsified bank statements last fall, but said it had reason to believe the documents had no impact on Diana’s decision to sit down for the interview because she had not seen them herself.

Bashir joined the BBC in 1987, and eventually made the jump to U.S. media. He was forced to resign from his post as an anchor for MSNBC after calling Sarah Palin a “world-class idiot” in 2013. In 2016, he became the BBC’s religion editor. Bashir contracted COVID-19 last year and became “seriously unwell” with complications of the virus.  



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AP President ‘Shocked And Horrified’ At Israel Bombing Of Gaza Media Building



aljazeera

An Israeli airstrike that obliterated a 12-story Gaza City building that housed offices for The Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media outlets sparked an outcry from press advocates on Saturday, with AP leadership calling it an “incredibly disturbing” development in the conflict. 

“We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement. 

Pruitt said the Israeli military has “long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there.” The agency received a warning that the building would be hit, which allowed time for evacuations. 

“This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life. A dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time,” Pruitt said, adding: “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”

The AP is seeking information from Israel on the bombing and is “engaged” with the U.S. State Department, Pruitt said. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”

The attack on press offices came one day after an IDF spokesman led the international press corps to believe that Israeli ground forces had entered Gaza when they had not. While the spokesman said the mistake was an honest one,  prominent Israeli news outlets said it was an intentional effort to smoke out Hamas fighters. 

The building that housed the media offices was mostly residential. It collapsed into a massive cloud of dust, video and reports from the scene show.

Earlier in the day, another air raid on a refugee camp killed at least 10 Palestinians, mostly children, in what amounted to the deadliest single strike from Israeli forces in the current conflict, which dramatically escalated earlier this month. So far, at least 139 people have been killed in Gaza, including 39 children, according to the AP. 

In a series of tweets, the Israeli Defense Forces justified the strike by asserting that the militant group Hamas had “turned residential areas in the Gaza Strip into military strongholds.” 

“It uses tall buildings in Gaza for multiple military purposes such as intelligence gathering, planning attacks, command and control, and communications,” the IDF said. “When Hamas uses a tall building for military purposes, it becomes a lawful military target.” 

The IDF said it called the building’s residents with warnings, sent SMS messages and dropped “roof knocker” bombs, which make a loud noise on rooftops as a warning to evacuate. 

Ethical Journalism Network founder Aidan White told Al-Jazeera that the images of press offices being destroyed were “disgraceful.”

“The threat to civilian life is completely unacceptable. I think it once again highlights perilous risks facing journalists and media in conflict zones,” White told the network, which receives funding from the government of Qatar. 

The International Federation of Journalists also condemned the attack, calling it intentional. 

In the United States, the scale of Israel’s response to rocket attacks coming from the Gaza Strip has attracted a noticeable uptick in criticism, including from elected officials, who have long refrained from speaking harshly of the U.S. ally. A growing number of Democrats in the House have begun speaking out against Israel’s attacks, led by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American.





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Palestinians Flee Heavy Israeli Fire In Gaza As Death Toll Rises



army spokesman

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Thousands of Palestinians grabbed children and belongings and fled their homes Friday as Israel barraged the northern Gaza Strip with tank fire and airstrikes, killing a family of six in their house and heavily damaging other neighborhoods in what it said was an operation to clear militant tunnels.

As international efforts at a cease-fire stepped up, Israel appeared to be looking to inflict intensified damage on the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel.

The Gaza violence increasingly spilled over into turmoil elsewhere.

Across the West Bank, Palestinians held their most widespread protests since 2017, with hundreds in at least nine towns burning tires and throwing stones at Israeli troops. Soldiers opening fire killed six, according to Palestinian health officials, while a seventh Palestinian was killed as he tried to stab an Israeli soldier.

Within Israel, communal violence erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after additional security forces were deployed.

In Gaza, the toll from the fighting rose to 122 killed, including 31 children and 20 women, with 900 wounded, according to the Health Ministry. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.

Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border, and an army spokesman spoke of a possible ground assault into the densely populated territory, though he gave no timetable. A day later, there was no sign of an incursion.

But before dawn Friday, tanks deployed on the border and warplanes carried out an intense barrage on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook for two and half hours in the darkness.

“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said. When daylight came, she saw the swath of destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.

Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighboring town of Beit Lahia, residents said. Four strikes hit the building at 11 p.m., just before the family went to sleep, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife also were killed.

“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation involved tank fire and airstrikes, aimed at destroying a tunnel network beneath Gaza City that the military refers to as “the Metro,” used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.

“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”

When the sun rose, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. “We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking,” said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for UNRWA, said thousands broke into 16 schools run by the relief agency, which he said was scrambling to find a way to shelter them, given movement restrictions on its staff amid the fighting and COVID-19 worries.

Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. “And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “We don’t know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.

Hamas showed no signs of backing down. So far, it has fired some 1,800 rockets toward Israel, some targeting the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, although more than a quarter of them have fallen short inside Gaza and most of the rest have been intercepted by missile defense systems.

Still, the rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill and caused disruptions at airports.

A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of Israeli soldiers.

The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the U.N. were leading truce efforts.

An Egyptian intelligence official with knowledge of the talks said Israel rejected an Egyptian proposal for a yearlong truce with Hamas and other Gaza militants, which would have started at midnight Thursday had Israel agreed. He said Hamas had accepted the proposal.

The official said Israel wants to delay a cease-fire to give time to destroy more of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s military capabilities. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Hamas would “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction.”

He said the goal now is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.” He called the effort “a work in progress.”

The fighting has, for the moment, disrupted efforts by Netanyahu’s political opponents to form a new government coalition, prolonging his effort to stay in office after inconclusive elections. His rivals have three weeks to agree on a coalition but need the support of an Arab party, whose leader has said he cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.

Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.

The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.

The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has added a layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.

The violence continued overnight. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 750 suspects have been arrested since the communal violence began this week.

Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.



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Israel Escalates Attack On Gaza, No End In Sight



Akram

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

It was the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

Just after daybreak Wednesday, Israel unleashed dozens of airstrikes in the course of a few minutes, targeting police and security installations, witnesses said. A wall of dark gray smoke rose over Gaza City. Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said airstrikes destroyed the central police headquarters in Gaza City, a compound with several buildings.

Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health Ministry. Over 200 people were wounded.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.

In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in confrontations with police.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current round of violence, sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, increasingly resembled that devastating war.

The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings — a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.

In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white smoke in their wake, while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.

In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant groups “have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression.”

He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.

“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel.”

He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a show of unity. “There are lots of targets lined up. This is only the beginning,” Gantz said. The military said it was activating some 5,000 reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.

The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sentiments.

Critics say heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke nightly unrest. Another flashpoint has been the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Confrontations erupted last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

In a televised address, Hamas’ exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel bore responsibility. “It’s the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza,” he said.

Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown on the death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building. The Health Ministry said 10 children and a woman were also killed.

Netanyahu said Israel had attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack was a set of airstrikes that brought down an entire 12-story building. The building housed important Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some start-up businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.

Israeli aircraft heavily damaged another Gaza City building early Wednesday. The nine-story structure housed residential apartments, medical companies and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombing. Israel said the building housed Hamas intelligence offices and the group’s command responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.

Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers had gathered around. There was no immediate word on casualties. The high-rise stood 200 meters (650 feet) away from the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City, and smoke and debris reached the office.

Soon after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and aimed 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beer-Sheva. Hamas said the renewed barrage was in response to the strike on the building. The latest rocket attack early Wednesday killed a man and his seven-year-old daughter in the central city of Lod, according to Israel’s Kan public radio.

The Israeli military said hundreds of rockets were launched toward Israel. Two women, including an Indian caregiver, were killed in separate rocket strikes in the southern city of Ashkelon.

Then, late at night, Hamas said it unleashed a barrage of 130 rockets toward Tel Aviv in response to the destruction of the high-rise. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of “God is great,” “victory to Islam” and “resistance.”

One rocket killed a woman in the city of Rishon LeZion, and another struck a bus in the nearby city of Holon, wounding three people, including a young girl.

The violence was beginning to spill over to Israel’s own Arab population.

In Lod, thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the previous night. The crowd clashed with police, and set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones.

The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, described the situation in the mixed Jewish-Arab city as “civil war,” and the government ordered a deployment of paramilitary border guards from the West Bank to Lod.

In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the norther port town of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens of others at Arab protests in other towns.

Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations working to deliver a cease-fire. All three serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas.

The U.N. Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency meeting in three days Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the U.N.’s most powerful body did not issue a statement because of U.S. concerns that it could escalate tensions.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. After failing to form a coalition government by a deadline last week, his political rivals have now been given the opportunity.

The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. But the current tensions might deter the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition with Jewish parties, at least for the time being.

The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal. If they fail, Israel would likely begin an unprecedented fifth election campaign in just over two years.

Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press Writer Ilan Ben Zion also contributed to this report.



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Bomb Kills At Least 25 Near Girls’ School In Afghanistan Capital


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A bomb exploded near a girl’s school in a majority Shiite district of west Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 25 people, many them young pupils between 11 and 15 years old, Afghan government spokesmen said. The Taliban condemned the attack apparently aimed at civilians, and denied any responsibility.

Ambulances were rushing to evacuate wounded from the scene of the blast near Syed Al-Shahda school, in the Shiite majority neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, Interior Ministry spokesman Tariq Arian said.

Residents in the area said the explosion was deafening. One, Naser Rahimi, told The Associated Press he heard three separate explosions, although there was no official confirmation of multiple blasts. Rahimi also said he believed that the sheer power of the explosion meant the death toll would almost certainly climb.

Afghan school students are treated at a hospital after a bomb explosion near a school in west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday



Afghan school students are treated at a hospital after a bomb explosion near a school in west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

While no one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, previous brutal attacks in the same neighborhood have been claimed by the Afghan Islamic State affiliate.

The radical Sunni Muslim group has declared war on Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Muslims. Washington blamed IS for a vicious attack last year in a maternity hospital in the same area that killed pregnant women and newborn babies.

In Dasht-e-Barchi, angry crowds attacked the ambulances and even beat health workers as they tried to evacuate the wounded, Health Ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastigar Nazari said. He implored residents to cooperate and allow ambulances free access to the site.

Images circulating on social media purportedly showed bloodied school backpacks and books strewn across the street in front if the school, and smoke rising above the neighborhood.

At one nearby hospital, Associated Press journalists saw at least 20 dead bodies lined up in hallways and rooms, with dozens of wounded people and families of victims pressing through the facility.

Outside the Muhammad Ali Jinnah Hospital, dozens of people lined up to donate blood, while family members checked casualty posted lists on the walls.

Both Arian and Nazari said that at least 50 people were also wounded, and that the casualty toll could rise. The attack occurred just as the fasting day came to an end.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in a message that only the Islamic State group could be responsible for such a heinous crime. Mujahid also accused Afghanistan’s intelligence agency of being complicit with IS, although he offered no evidence.

Afghan men try to identify the dead bodies at a hospital after a bomb explosion near a school west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sat



Afghan men try to identify the dead bodies at a hospital after a bomb explosion near a school west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The Taliban and the Afghan government have traded accusations over a series of targeted killings of civil society workers, journalists and Afghan professionals. While IS has taken responsibility for some of those killings, many have gone unclaimed.

IS has previously claimed attacks against minority Shiites in the same area, last year claiming two brutal attacks on education facilities that killed 50 people, most of them students.

Even as the IS has been degraded in Afghanistan, according to government and US officials, it has stepped-up its attacks particularly against Shiite Muslims and women workers.

Earlier the group took responsibility for the targeted killing of three women media personnel in eastern Afghanistan.

The attack comes days after the remaining 2,500 to 3,500 American troops officially began leaving the country. They will be out by Sept. 11 at the latest. The pullout comes amid a resurgent Taliban, who control or hold sway over half of Afghanistan.

The top U.S. military officer said Sunday that Afghan government forces face an uncertain future and possibly some “bad possible outcomes” against Taliban insurgents as the withdrawal accelerates in the coming weeks.

Associated Press Photographer Rahmat Gull and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan contributed to this report



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EU Finalizing Plans To Allow Vaccinated American Tourists Back



European Medicines Agency

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is finalizing plans to allow tourists from the United States to travel to the 27-nation bloc this summer, officials said Monday.

More than a year after the EU restricted travel to the region to a bare minimum in a bid to contain the pandemic, the European Commission said it would make a recommendation to member states to allow American travelers back.

The commission didn’t say when exactly tourists will be allowed back inside the bloc, and if a reciprocal approach will apply to European tourists willing to travel to the U.S.

European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz told reporters that the EU’s executive body is hoping to restore nonessential “trans-Atlantic travel as soon as it is safe to do so.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if only full vaccination would be accepted for entry, or whether a negative PCR test or proof of recent recovery from COVID-19 could be presented as well.

“These are among the questions we’ll still need to figure out,” Jahnz said. “The proposal is not yet made. For now, we have nothing more to go by than what the (European Commission) president said.”

On Sunday, The New York Times published an interview with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reporting that fully vaccinated Americans would be able to visit EU countries this summer since all coronavirus vaccines currently used in the U.S. have also been approved by the EU’s drug regulator. But the report didn’t mention whether she was asked about whether Americans could also provide a negative PCR test or evidence of recovering from COVID-19.

“The Americans, as far as I can see, use European Medicines Agency-approved vaccines,” von der Leyen said in the interview. “This will enable free movement and the travel to the European Union. Because one thing is clear: All 27 member states will accept, unconditionally, all those who are vaccinated with vaccines that are approved by EMA.”

Jahnz insisted that the return of American tourists to EU nations will be conditioned on the epidemiological situation in both the U.S. and within the bloc.

The European Union is putting the finishing touches to a system of certificates that would allow EU residents to travel freely across the region by the summer as long as they have been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or recovered from the disease. Under the plan discussed with their U.S. counterparts, American tourists could be included in the program.

With more than 15 million Americans estimated to travel to Europe annually before the crisis, the recommendation from the commission is manna from heaven for the heavily hit European tourism sector. But EU member states will have the final say on whether to implement the guidelines.

The commission said other third countries have made similar requests, but didn’t name them. Asked whether negotiations with the United Kingdom were ongoing, European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said “no contact to this end” has been made.

Travel to the EU is currently extremely limited except for a handful of countries with low infection rates including Australia and New Zealand. But Greece, which is heavily reliant on tourism, has already lifted quarantine restrictions for the U.S., Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Serbia, Israel, and non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland that are part of a European travel pact. Travelers from those countries will no longer be subject to a seven-day quarantine requirement if they hold a vaccination certificate or negative PCR test.

“Uniliteral approaches, from our perspective should be avoided,” Jahnz said. “The objective is to continue to have a coordinated approach on the European level.”



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Dozens Killed In Stampede At Jewish Religious Festival In Israel



Bnei Brak

JERUSALEM (AP) — A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters.

The stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.

Avraham Leibe told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs. “Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”

Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.

The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

This year, media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the stampede a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

After the stampede, photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground, with dozens of ambulances at the site.

By mid-morning Friday, efforts were still under way to identify victims and connect families with missing relatives. In the night from Thursday to Friday, cell phone coverage around Mount Meron had collapsed for hours and emergency hotlines were overwhelmed with phone calls.

In the overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, officials were working with healthcare workers to connect the families of the missing. “The picture is slowly becoming clearer,” Kivi Hess, a municipal spokesman, told Channel 13 TV.

The station published the photos of seven boys and teens and asked for help in locating them.

In a race against time, funerals were to be held before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.

In all, 44 people were killed, according to the ZAKA ambulance service. The death toll was on par with the number of people killed in a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history.

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, with six in critical condition.

Heller told Israel Army Radio that “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.

The Justice Ministry said Friday morning that the police’s internal investigations department was launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.

The deadly stampede was also bound to have political reverberations at a time of great uncertainty following an inconclusive March election, the fourth in two years. Netanyahu has so far been unsuccessful in forming a governing coalition, and his time for doing so runs out early next week. His political rivals, including former allies bent on ending his 12-year rule, will then get a chance to try to cobble together an alliance from a patchwork of left-wing, centrist and hawkish parties.

Netanyahu needs the continued support of ultra-Orthodox parties, his long-time allies, if he wants to keep faint hopes alive of staying in power.

Israeli media reported Friday that earlier this month, Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox politicians in a meeting that the Lag BaOmer celebrations would take place with few limitations. The reports said this decision was supported by Cabinet ministers and police, despite objections by health officials who warned of a risk of renewed coronavirus infections.

Last year, observances on Mount Meron were limited due to the pandemic.

This year, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.

At the start of the celebrations, Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants,” as he wished the country a happy holiday.



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