* Israeli press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye.
Bernie Sanders has called Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu a "reactionary racist" and blasted Saudi Arabia's rulers as "murderous thugs" while calling for an even-handed US diplomacy that prioritises human rights and multilateralism.
His presidential campaign, which he suspended on Wednesday, transformed US politics domestically and challenged the bipartisan consensus around several key foreign policy issues, including unconditional support for Israel.
Arab-American activists paid homage to Sanders' campaign vowing to grow the political momentum they built around his candidacy.
"We stood with Bernie Sanders because of ideas, not because of a political party or because of one particular election," said Amer Zahr, a Palestinian-American activist and comedian who had been campaigning for the senator.
"And so while I'm obviously sad today, I'm very optimistic about the gains that our movement has achieved since 2016."
The end of Sanders' bid for the presidency paves the way for former Vice President Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee and take on Donald Trump in November. Still, many of Sanders' supporters see the campaign as an ongoing struggle that has already succeeded in promoting major political and economic changes once seen as radical.
Biden's campaign acknowledged the fact that Sanders and his supporters moved the margins of debate within mainstream American politics.
"Senator Sanders and his supporters have changed the dialogue in America. Issues which had been given little attention - or little hope of ever passing - are now at the center of the political debate," Biden said in a statement on Wednesday.
'Bernie came along, seemingly out of nowhere in 2015, and spoke directly to us'
- Wihad al-Tawil, graduate student
"Income inequality, universal health care, climate change, free college, relieving students from the crushing debt of student loans. These are just a few of the issues Bernie and his supporters have given life to."
Many of Sanders' supporters would add Palestinian human rights to that list.
The Vermont senator proposed conditioning US military aid for Israel to push it to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. He also called for lifting the blockade on Gaza and addressing the humanitarian crisis there.
In the Senate, he was one of the leading voices working to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and he was one of two legislators to reject a bill to impose sanctions against Iran in 2017.
Wihad al-Tawil, a graduate student of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago, said Sanders has been able to speak to Arab-American issues and concerns - not merely paying lip service to them - since he announced his first presidential campaign.
"Bernie came along, seemingly out of nowhere in 2015, and spoke directly to us. He was vociferously against the Iraq War. He was against the US involvement in destabilising regime-change invasions in the Middle East," Tawil told MEE.
"He gave a voice to Yemenis suffering at the hands of Saudi Arabia. He gave a voice to Palestinians targeted by the inhumane policies of the right-wing Israeli government.
"And in fact he has normalised this discussion, and even mobilised young Jewish-American activists to take powerful stands against the occupation, which is historic in itself."
Sanders' domestic and foreign policy proposals, many of which challenge current realities, stand in stark contrast with the approach of the last man standing in the Democratic field - Biden. The former vice president ran a campaign promising to heal the nation by returning to pre-Trump normalcy.
That distinction makes itself clear in Biden's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The presumptive nominee follows the policy of previous administrations of rejecting the occupation and settlement expansion verbally, while pledging to maintain Washington's political and financial support for Israel.
'There is a clear example of hypocrisy in claiming to oppose Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, but insisting that there can never be accountability for Israel that actually pushes it in that direction'
- Omar Baddar, political analyst
"What Joe Biden is advocating for is a return to the status quo. And when it comes to Palestine, we need anything but a return to the way things have been for the last 70 years," Zahr told MEE.
Biden, who describes himself as a Zionist, has been a staunch supporter of Israel throughout his political career, which started as a senator in 1973. Last December, he dismissed Sanders' pledge to condition aid to Israel as "bizarre".
The former vice president also sent a video message to the conference of the Israeli lobby AIPAC in March, breaking with his more liberal opponents who boycotted the event.
Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American political analyst who supported Sanders, said Biden's policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represent an "old mentality" that ignores the progressive shift in the base of the Democratic party on the issue.
"There is a contradiction. There is a clear example of hypocrisy in claiming to oppose Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, but insisting that there can never be accountability for Israel that actually pushes it in that direction," Baddar told MEE.
For her part, Tawil, the graduate student, said Biden's views, particularly on foreign policy and Palestine "represent the failure of the Democratic Party as a whole".
"Biden is a weak candidate that actively lobbied for the Iraq War, and is part of the corrupt infrastructure that has damaged our world at home and abroad," she said. "Biden is a vigorous proponent of the Israeli lobby, and has never extended compassion or concern to the Palestinian people or their struggle."
Narissa Ayoub, who served as a community laison for the Sanders' campaign in Michigan, also said that Biden's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sufficient.
Ayoub hailed the way the Sanders' campaign engaged Arab-American voters, particularly in Michigan, where he won upwards of 90 percent of the votes in some predominantly Arab neighbourhoods.
'It's really important and imperative that Arabs and Muslims across the United States continue to fight for the causes that Senator Sanders was fighting for them so forcefully'
- Sami Scheetz, former outreach director for Sanders' campaign
"Bernie brought a unique approach to our community. It was very important that a campaign of this scale took our community into account, and did it well. He listened to our concerns and what we had to say," Ayoub said.
"Bernie went out of his way to appoint surrogates and employees to his campaign who were Arab and who were Muslim."
In Michigan and in other states, Arab and Muslim voters rewarded Sanders' outreach and policy proposals by overwhelmingly backing him. At several caucus sites at mosques in Iowa in February, almost all voters went for Sanders.
"Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign was one of the first campaigns - if not the first - to exclusively do outreach and focus on Muslim and Arab voters," said Sami Scheetz, a former constituency outreach director for the Sanders' campaign in Iowa.
Scheetz added that Sanders had an entire team dedicated to engaging Arab and Muslim voters, who came out in large numbers "almost exclusively" for him on caucus day.
There is consensus among Sanders' supporters that the "struggle continues", as the senator himself said in his announcement about suspending the campaign on Wednesday.
"It's really important and imperative that Arabs and Muslims across the United States continue to fight for the causes that Senator Sanders was fighting for them so forcefully," Scheetz told MEE.
He warned against feeling "disheartened and discouraged" to the point of giving up on the political process.
Still, a debate is begining to flare up on whether left-wing progressives should fully put their political weight behind Biden in the general election.
"If you give me the option between President Trump who instituted a racist Muslim ban - an Arab ban against people from the Middle East - and the vice president, the choice is clear for me," Scheetz said.
"The vice president is somebody who's on day one going to be able to at least mitigate some of the damage that Trump's racist policies have caused to Muslim Americans and across the country."
Baddar, the Palestinian-American analyst, is also of the opinion that Sanders' supporters can vote for Biden while still pushing him closer to their views. He cited Trump's aggressive policies against Palestinians.
Over the past three and a half years, the US president has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, cut aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and proposed a plan that would allow Israel to keep all of its West Bank settlement.
"I personally think that it makes perfect sense to say when it comes to election day, we vote for the lesser of two evils and then continue the hard work of holding whoever is in that position accountable," he told MEE.
Baddar decried Biden's approach of returning to mainstream politics as "grossly inadequate", but said there will be a choice between two men in November and a lifetime to organise afterwards.
"It's critically important to remember that movement-building does not happen only on election day," he said.
Still, Zahr is holding out on backing the former vice president.
He urged pressuring Biden to change his stance on Palestine as well as the conflict in Yemen, which started with the backing of former President Barack Obama. He said Arab Americans should not automatically vote for Biden simply because he's not Trump.
"If we did that, it would be immediately surrendering all the political capital that we have built up in our movement here with Bernie Sanders," Zahr said.
"What we've shown with the Bernie Sanders movement is that Arab Americans are more organised and more united than ever, behind a set of ideas when a candidate expresses solidarity with us."
He acknowledged that Trump is a "disaster", but said a return to the status quo is not the answer. "I'm a firm believer that somebody has to win our votes, that somebody has to come with ideas. 'I'm not Trump' is not an idea."
Even from a Palestinian rights perspective, Zahr says if Biden doesn't change his status quo approach, it is not a given that it will be an improvement compared with Trump's shaking things up in favour of Israel.
"From the point of view of the struggle for Palestinian freedom, best case scenario would have been a Bernie Sanders presidency. I'm not sure that the second-best case scenario is a Joe Biden presidency," Zahr said.
The Italian government says it will not allow charity ships to disembark migrants and refugees at its ports after ruling that they are not "a place of safety" because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision came by decree late on Tuesday after a ship run by the German NGO Sea-Eye picked up about 150 people off the Libyan coast and headed towards Italy.
"For the entire duration of the national health emergency caused by the spread of the Covid-19 virus, Italian ports cannot guarantee the requisites needed to be classified and defined as a place of safety," said the decree, which was signed by Italy's interior, transport and health ministries.
The measure effectively shutters Italian ports to rescue boats until at least 31 July, but that deadline might be extended, depending on Italy's ability to curb the outbreak.
The closures are particularly worrisome now, as departures from Libya are expected to increase with the onset of good weather.
While most rescue ships that normally patrol the coast of Libya have halted operations as the world grapples with the spread of the coronavirus, Sea-Eye chose to disembark for its latest rescue operation sometime early last week.
It rescued the 150 people in two separate missions on 6 April, and posted an announcement on Twitter the next day about the importance of their ongoing operations.
"Even when life in Europe has almost come to a halt, human rights must be protected," the group said on Twitter. "Now our guests need a port of safety. #LeaveNoOneBehind"
In a video posted by the group on Twitter, migrants could be seen jumping ship despite repeated screams of "stop" and "don't" coming from the crew of the Sea-Eye vessel, the Alan Kurdi, which is named for a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in 2015 as his family was trying to reach Europe.
"During the rescue, a Libyan-flagged speedboat endangered the work of Sea-Eye's rescue crew. After shots were fired in the air, approximately half of the people on the wooden boat jumped into the water in panic without life jackets and tried to swim towards the Alan Kurdi," the group said in a statement, adding that it was able to rescue all the passengers onboard.
Yesterday our crew aboard the #ALANKURDI rescued 150 people.— sea-eye (@seaeyeorg) April 7, 2020
Even when life in Europe has almost come to a halt, #humanrights must be protected.
Now our guests need a port of safety.#LeaveNoOneBehind pic.twitter.com/zctyL8SNmn
Prior to Italy's formal decree, both the Italian and Maltese governments had warned the Sea-Eye that the countries would not be accepting migrants from rescue ships amid fears of exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus.
The Sea-Eye said Germany had also warned against continuing its rescue efforts, but Gorden Isler, chairman of rescue group, said 150 cities in Germany have declared their readiness to receive migrants.
"It must be imaginable and humanly possible to send an aircraft for 150 safety-seeking people to Southern Europe in order to immediately evacuate these people," he said.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen's Houthi movement announced a two-week ceasefire aimed at protecting the conflict-ravaged country from the threat of coronavirus
The coalition said the pause in fighting will begin at noon on Thursday and also gives Houthi rebels a chance to join UN-sponsored talks on a peace settlement.
"The Kingdom has always been committed to reaching a comprehensive political settlement in Yemen, and based on our responsibility to bring stability to the region at such a critical time... has declared a two week long ceasefire initiative," said Khalid bin Salman, the deputy minister of defense and younger brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
"Yemen is particularly vulnerable to a Covid-19 outbreak, KSA will contribute $500 Million to the UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen in 2020, and an additional $25 Million to help combat the pandemic. It is up to Houthis to put the health and safety of the Yemeni people above all else."
Officials added that the two week period could be extended. The Houthi movement has yet to announce whether it will follow suit on the ceasefire.
Yemen has endured years of chaos since Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and toppled then president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states intervened in the country on 26 March 2015 to prop up Hadi's beleaguered government.
Since then, the coalition has carried out more than 20,000 air attacks, with one-third striking non-military sites, including schools and hospitals, according to the Yemen Data Project
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), an American NGO, has reported that more than 100,000 people may have died as a result of the war.
While Yemen has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, health experts and rights groups have said that it could wreak havoc on the country, which has a deteriorated health-care system.
The announcement comes days after the UN's envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, called for a halt in hostilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesman for the Houthi movement, said earlier on Wednesday that the group sent a comprehensive vision to the UN, which included an end to the five-year war.
"[Our proposal] will lay the foundations for a political dialogue and a transitional period," Abdulsalam said in a Twitter post.
Griffiths welcomed the coalition's announcement and called on both parties to "utilise this opportunity and cease immediately all hostilities with the utmost urgency, and make progress towards comprehensive and sustainable peace."
Back-channel talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis led to a lull in military action last year, but this year there has been a spike in violence that threatens fragile peace deals in vital port cities.
A group of 29 rights groups have urged Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to lift a ban on voice and video calling apps so migrant workers can connect with their families amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The three Gulf Arab states have long blocked many free internet calling apps to protect the commercial interests of their state-owned telecommunication companies.
"This has caused serious problems for the people living in those countries, especially the majority of migrant workers and foreign national residents who need to connect and communicate with their families and communities overseas," the rights groups said in a statement on Wednesday.
A majority of the 17 million people living in the three Gulf states are expatriates, most of them low-paid workers from Asia.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the UAE and Oman have relaxed restrictions on some calling apps, but on a temporary basis.
They have unblocked apps that allow for distance learning, including Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Google Hangouts and Zoom. Microsoft Teams and Zoom are also available in Qatar.
State-owned telecom firms in the UAE have also introduced a new app, UAE Voice, that allows for free video and audio calls.
But popular apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime remain blocked despite persistent calls for a change of policy to face the pandemic, according to the coalition of groups, which includes Human Rights Watch, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and the Digital Rights Foundation.
"Denying the Gulf population access to these platforms puts people at serious risk, as this cuts them off from their communities abroad and the resources they need in times of such crisis," the coalition said.
Despite its ambition to become a major technological power, the UAE has harsh cybercrime laws and maintains what civil society groups say is a high level of online restriction and surveillance.
In December, the New York Times reported that UAE intelligence services were using a popular new messaging app called ToTok to spy on users and track conversations.
Millions in Lebanon are "at risk of going hungry" amid the country's coronavirus lockdown measures unless the government provides urgent assistance, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Lebanese government issued a stay-at-home order on 15 March to halt the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19. The order is expected to remain in place until 26 April.
Since 21 February, when infected travellers first began arriving from Iran, the disease has infected at least 575 people and killed 19, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
'If the government does not step in, more than half the population may not be able to afford food and basic necessities'
- Lena Simet, HRW senior researcher
Before the pandemic erupted, Lebanon was already struggling with its worst economic crisis in decades, with 45 percent of the country's 4.5 million population facing poverty and 22 percent facing extreme poverty.
In its statement, HRW said that lockdown measures had made matters worse, with "millions of Lebanon's residents... at risk of going hungry."
"Many people who had an income have lost it, and if the government does not step in, more than half the population may not be able to afford food and basic necessities," HRW senior researcher Lena Simet said.
"The lockdown... has compounded the poverty and economic hardship rampant in Lebanon before the virus arrived," she added.
The government announced on 1 April that it would pay 400,000 Lebanese pounds (less than $150) to the most vulnerable families, after pledging 75 billion Lebanese pounds (around $28 million) a week earlier for nutrition and sanitary assistance.
HRW said that it was unclear whether both announcements referred to the same assistance.
The rights group also said that the government should look into suspending rent and mortgage payments during the stay-at-home order.
Sporadic protests have erupted in parts of the country as people have broken the mandatory curfew to demand assistance. "We want to eat, we want to live," protesters chanted in Beirut's southern suburbs late last month.
HRW Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said that Syrian refugees had also been hurt by the lockdown measures.
Lebanon is home to about 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the majority of whom rely on aid.
"Many of them were seasonal workers, they worked in agriculture, they worked in the service industry, and they're not able to do that anymore," Majzoub said.
On Monday, Lebanon's President Michel Aoun urged the international community to provide financial assistance to help support the country's economic reforms.
The World Bank allocated $40m to support Lebanon's fragile health sector in its fight against the virus, and increase hospitals' "ability to test and treat suspected cases."
Last week, a report by the United Nations warned that about 8.3 million people in Arab countries were at risk of falling into poverty because of the pandemic.
As the number of coronavirus cases in Israel continues to increase, surpassing 9,400, rights groups are demanding that authorities end their neglect of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of occupied Jerusalem who have yet to gain access to testing.
Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel - filed a petition on Wednesday to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of two East Jerusalem communities, Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp, calling on the government to provide coronavirus testing to residents.
Kafr Aqab and Shuafat are home to about 150,000 Palestinian Jerusalem ID-holders, but have been isolated from the rest of the city by Israel’s separation wall.
As a result, they have been left out of Israel’s testing efforts in Jerusalem, which were only recently extended to Palestinian residents of the city.
"We are asking the government to provide basic access to Covid-19 health care and testing for the people living in these two neighborhoods, which, municipality-wise, belong to Jerusalem," Adalah attorney and co-author of the petition Myssana Morany told Middle East Eye.
According to Morany, if Palestinian residents of the Shuafat camp and Kafr Aqab want to get tested for the virus, they must travel through Israeli checkpoints into Jerusalem to a testing site.
"Not only does this kind of travel pose major health risks, it is extremely difficult for certain parts of the communities, like women, children and the elderly, to access these far-away testing sites," Morany said.
In its petition, she said, Adalah "gave the government two options: either set up temporary or drive-in testing facilities in the communities themselves or provide testing kits and the appropriate equipment to the existing health facilities in Shuafat and Kafr Aqab."
The Israeli government, Morany added, has an obligation to ensure safe access to testing and proper access to emergency health care for its Palestinian citizens and permanent residents.
"If the government continues to ignore these communities, which are overcrowded and underserviced, it will negatively impact the entire effort of the country to combat the coronavirus," she said.
"This virus will not stop spreading until you treat everyone, equally."
While there is a clear disparity between Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens versus its Jewish citizens during the Covid-19 crisis, experts say the emergency has only exacerbated an already existing system of discrimination.
For instance, Israel’s national emergency service, Magen David Adom (MDA), gets a police escort to access the two neighborhoods, Morany said, while Palestinian ambulances often get held up at checkpoints for hours.
"The year-round neglect of these neighborhoods, both medically and socioeconomically, makes them more vulnerable to be affected by the virus and its effects," she added.
Mahmoud al-Sheikh, head of Shuafat's local council, echoed Morany’s sentiments and said the camp’s residents are routinely neglected by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, despite the fact that 70 percent of them have Jerusalem IDs and pay municipality and national health insurance taxes.
'If we get sick, it affects everyone'
- Mahmoud al-Sheikh, head of Shuafat’s local council
Sheikh said the camp has long suffered from a lack of services and that local organisations have stepped up to address the needs of the community during the coronavirus crisis and cover the gap left by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA.
"We've set up an emergency committee in the camp, distributed some hygiene products, fumigated the camp and tried to educate people on social distancing," Sheikh told MEE.
Still, he added, despite these efforts, tests are a vital component for fighting the spread of the disease.
"My message to the Israeli government is that the virus doesn't discriminate between Israelis and Palestinians, so why are you discriminating against us?" Sheikh asked.
"If we get sick, it affects everyone."
The United States plans to block Iran's request for a $5bn emergency IMF loan to respond effectively to the country's coronavirus outbreak, claiming that the funds would be used to support its "adventurism abroad, not to buy medicine for Iranians".
The US, which effectively holds a veto at the IMF, said if it were to allow Iran to tap IMF coffers, Tehran would divert the money to help its economy, which has been weakened by years of sanctions.
"The world's leading state sponsor of terrorism is seeking cash to fund its adventurism abroad, not to buy medicine for Iranians," an official in the Trump administration told Middle East Eye on Wednesday.
"The regime's corrupt officials have a long history of diverting funds allocated for humanitarian goods into their own pockets and to their terrorist proxies.
"Iranians themselves know this best, which is why many dissidents and former political prisoners have written to the IMF requesting that they deny providing direct financial support to the regime, which would not go to help the Iranian people."
The Islamic Republic is battling one of the world's deadliest coronavirus outbreaks, which it says has killed more than 3,800 people and infected more than 62,500.
There has been speculation abroad that the real number of deaths and infections may be far higher.
Earlier on Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani pleaded with the IMF for the $5bn emergency loan, saying it would be guilty of discrimination if it withheld the money.
Iran's central bank wrote to the IMF last month requesting the funds from its Rapid Financing Instrument, an emergency programme that aids countries faced with disasters, including natural ones.
According to the IMF, a Rapid Financing Instrument "is available to all member countries facing an urgent balance of payments need".
In Wednesday's televised cabinet meeting, Rouhani said the country needed the funds to respond effectively to the virus.
"I urge international organizations to fulfill their duties… We are a member of the IMF," Rouhani said.
"There should be no discrimination in giving loans," he added, saying that such bias would be unacceptable.
"If they do not act on their duties in this difficult situation, the world will judge them in a different way".
In a tweet on Sunday, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, accused Washington of "crimes against humanity", after reports emerged that Washington was planning to block the loan request.
"US opposition to granting Iran's requested facilities from IMF to provide items needed to deal with coronavirus is a real case of crimes against humanity," Shamkhani said in a tweet.
The coronavirus outbreak has devastated Iran's economy, already battered by US sanctions re-imposed in 2018 when Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, and unilaterally launched its "maximum pressure" campaign.
'It will go down in history that the White House, which was engaged in economic terrorism so far, is now a terrorist in health issues, too'
- Hassan Rouhani, Iranian president
Sanctions have also more broadly impacted Iranians by crippling private businesses and forcing the value of Iran's currency, the rial, to plummet.
Medicine and medical equipment are technically exempt from US sanctions, but many banks and companies have refrained from taking part in any such ventures out of fear of incurring large penalties in the United States.
"The US sanctions on Iran are economic and medical terrorism ... They are in violation of international medical conventions," Rouhani said.
"It will go down in history that the White House, which was engaged in economic terrorism so far, is now a terrorist in health issues, too."
Turkey is set to monitor the mobile phones of citizens diagnosed with the highly contagious coronavirus to ensure their commitment to quarantine, according to the presidency’s director of communications Fahrettin Altun.
Authorities will start tracking the movement of those who tested positive for the virus, also known as Covid-19, and will send them a message or call them once they leave their homes, authorities said in a promotion video shared by Altun on Wednesday.
Koronavirüsle mücadelemize yeni tedbirler eklemeye devam ediyoruz.— Fahrettin Altun (@fahrettinaltun) April 8, 2020
En yeni adımımız, Sağlık Bakanlığımız tarafından geliştirilen “Pandemi İzolasyon Takip Projesi.”
Bu projeyle birlikte artık virüse karşı daha da güçlüyüz!
bizbizeyeterizTürkiyem 🇹🇷 pic.twitter.com/enN1L8gRA1
Translation: We continue to add new measures to our fight against coronavirus. Our newest step is "Pandemic Isolation Tracking Project," developed by our health ministry. With this project, we are now stronger against the virus!
Those who violate the quarantine will be asked to return home or be penalised, according to the new measures. Turkish law allows for the processing of personal data without consent for "exceptional aims".
Since the first case was confirmed on 11 March, Turkey's coronavirus cases have surged to more than 34,000, with 725 deaths as of Tuesday.
Ankara has taken strict measures to limit social contact, quarantining some towns, banning mass prayers, closing schools, bars and restaurants, and limiting inter-city travel.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly called on citizens to impose their own quarantine but stopped short of imposing a broad stay-at-home order.
Israel, China, Singapore, South Korea and other countries have asked residents to use apps and other technology to track their compliance with quarantines, but privacy activists argue such measures can compromise individual liberties.
The European Union is drawing up common rules for using mobile apps to track the spread of the virus, aiming to make better use of the technology and address privacy concerns.
Authorities said in the promotion video that Turkey's government will ensure that the personal data collected will not be used for any other aim.
The world's chemical weapons watchdog has for the first time blamed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for three attacks, two using sarin gas and one using chlorine in 2017.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said on Wednesday it had "concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Latamenah in 2017... and the use of chlorine... were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force".
The report said the attacks were carried out by two SU-22 jet fighters which dropped two bombs containing sarin on 24 March and 30 March, 2017, as well as by a Syrian military helicopter that dropped a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital in the town of Al-Lataminah on 25 March that year.
The report is the first released by the Hague-based watchdog's new Identification and Investigations Team (IIT), set up specifically to finger the perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria's ongoing nine-year-long civil war.
"Attacks of such a strategic nature would have only taken place on the basis of orders from the higher authorities of the Syrian Arab Republic military command," IIT coordinator Santiago Onate-Laborde said in the OPCW statement.
"Even if authority can be delegated, responsibility cannot. In the end, the IIT was unable to identify any other plausible explanation," he said.
The report said the attacks were carried out by two SU-22 jet fighters which dropped two bombs containing sarin on 24 and 30 March, 2017, as well as by a Syrian military helicopter that dropped a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital in the town of Al-Lataminah on March 25 that year.
Almost two years ago, the Hague-based body confirmed that sarin and chlorine were used in two attacks in Al-Lataminah, but at the time it did not name those responsible.
Another deadly sarin assault took place a few days later on April 4 in nearby Khan Sheikun, killing more than 80 people.
But the new report stopped short of naming the culprit of an alleged 2018 chlorine attack in the Syrian town of Douma in which at least 40 people died - an investigation that has become a major bone of contention between Damascus and its Russian ally and Western nations.
The watchdog's member states voted in 2018, following a UN resolution, to give the organisation new powers to name those who use toxic arms. Previously it could only confirm whether or not a chemical assault had occurred.
Damascus has continued to deny the use of chemical weapons and insists it has handed over its weapons stockpiles under a 2013 agreement, prompted by a suspected sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.
Israeli army chief of staff Aviv Kochavi has filed a request with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Naftali Bennett to hand over responsibility for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic to the army.
Kochavi emitted his request in a secret letter last week, which was revealed by newspaper Yisrael Hayom.
Israel has mobilised its external and internal intelligence agencies to obtain coronavirus test kits and monitor people with Covid-19 symptoms.
It has also imposed a lockdown on several cities and towns and issued fines for people straying further than 100 metres away from their homes without a valid reason.
In the secret letter to the premier, Kochavi asked that the army be allowed to conduct coronavirus testing on a wider scope than now, calling for all of the information gathered on the coronavirus to be concentrated in the army’s hands.
Israel has mobilised its entire cadre of academics, physicians, high-tech and industry executives, generals and communications experts to combat Covid-19, Yisrael Hayom said.
Yet Kochavi’s letter reflects the Israeli army's dissatisfaction with how the crisis is being managed, the newspaper said.
The army said in a statement that it “maintains an ongoing dialogue with the political echelon throughout the crisis, with a concept of expansive responsibility, as far as possible”.
As of Wednesday, 9,404 confirmed coronavirus cases were recorded in Israel, including 72 deaths, as the country prepares to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.
Defence Minister Naftali Bennett has failed to deny that the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, “stole” medical equipment from other countries to face the Covid-19 pandemic, Haaretz reported.
When asked during an interview on the army radio if the Mossad stole medical equipment related to the coronavirus pandemic, Bennett answered: “I will not answer this question. We are all acting in an aggressive and smart way.”
Last month, Middle East Eye reported that Mossad acquired 100,000 Covid-19 tests from two countries with which Israel does not share diplomatic ties, though the kits were "unusable".
One of the countries is likely to be the United Arab Emirates, MEE reported.
Another Mossad operation reported on Monday allegedly resulted in the requisition of 27 ventilators, 10 million surgical masks, and 25,000 N95 face masks.
Israel faces shortages of C1 and C6 ventilators needed for coronavirus patients, in addition to masks, clothing and medical glasses.
Last month, Israel mobilised a cyber spy unit in the internal intelligence agency Shin Bet to monitor and identify people infected with the coronavirus.
There are currently 20 labs in Israel dedicated to testing for the coronavirus infection.
Traffic is usually heavy on Israeli roads in the days leading to the Jewish holiday of Passover, but not this year.
As the country announced closures of many public areas last month, roads, beaches, parking lots and highways are almost deserted.
On Thursday, tighter restrictions will be imposed, pushing Israelis to celebrate the holiday only with their closest family, Ynet reported.
Police, soldiers and volunteers have been deployed to enforce regulations across the country, using drones and helicopters.
The unprecedented curfew came into effect at 3pm on Wednesday, and will last until 7am on Friday.
Residents are prohibited from walking further than 100 metres from their homes.
Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security, told Ynet that Israeli forces would carry out "unprecedented and uncompromising" enforcement of the restrictions during Passover.
“Police will be deployed almost to its largest possible extent," he said, adding that checkpoints will be installed in an unprecedented manner between towns inside Israel.
"We have been using technological measures in recent weeks, not just drones and helicopters as you will see today. Technology companies have also helped police track cell phones that detect crowds,” Erdan said.
* Israeli press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye.
Egypt will extend a nationwide night-time curfew and the closure of airports by 15 days from Thursday to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said on Wednesday.
The new decision is an extension of lockdown measures in place for the past two weeks, including the closure of schools, universities, cafes, nightclubs and entertainment venues.
A night-time curfew will now start one hour later at 8pm instead of 7pm, Madbouly said.
The curfew bans the movement of individuals, including public transportation and private vehicles, on all public roads from 8pm to 6am every night.
Shopping malls and supermarkets will be open from 6am to 5pm, according to the new measures, and will be completely closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
Restaurants and fast food shops will only be allowed to continue home deliveries and takeaway services.
Sports, social clubs and youth centres will remain closed for the next two weeks.
All ministries, except the health ministry, will continue to suspend their services to the public for the duration of the lockdown period, and will continue to operate with reduced staff.
Madbouly also said that ministers in his cabinet will donate 20 percent of their salaries for three months to support those who need treatment for Covid-19.
Up until Tuesday, Egypt has reported 1,450 cases of coronavirus and 94 deaths, while 276 patients have recovered.
Like other countries, Egypt has taken steps to curtail the impact of the pandemic on the economy.
These include a surprise 3 percent interest rate cut, cash transfers to informal workers, salary payments for laid-off regular employees via an emergency fund, plus an injection of 20 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.27bn) to support the stock market.
Two of Britain's leading Jewish newspapers have been forced into liquidation on the eve of the Passover holiday after their parent company ran out of money due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Staff at the Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News are to be laid off, the Guardian reported on Wednesday, after being told that the outlets had run out of money would not be able to keep trading.
The two newspapers were in the process of being merged by the Jewish Chronicle's owner the Kessler Foundation.
Sources at the Jewish Chronicle said there would be attempts made to try and salvage the newspaper, which was first founded in 1841, in some form.
"Despite the heroic efforts of the editorial and production team at the Jewish News it has become clear that the business will not be able to survive the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic in its current form," Jewish News said in a statement.
"We are actively working with the Kessler Foundation, owner of the Jewish Chronicle, to secure a future for the Jewish News after the liquidation."
The UK newspaper industry, which has long been in decline in its print form, has been hit particularly hard by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Research company Enders Analysis on Tuesday predicted that as many as a third of journalists could lose their jobs.
Many media group staff have already been furloughed at titles across the country.
While the Jewish News was originally founded in 1997 as a free sheet, the Jewish Chronicle is the world's oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper.
Throughout its history the paper veered between support for and criticism of Zionism, though the paper has been supportive of Israel since its creation.
Among those who wrote for the paper was Theodor Herzl, arguably the most important Zionist theorist.
Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, is making strenuous and persistent attempts to get Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to break a ceasefire with Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province, Middle East Eye has been told.
In recent months, Assad’s forces backed by Russian airpower made significant gains against rebel groups in Syria’s northwestern Idlib, killing hundreds and forcing a million civilians to flee towards the Turkish border in the process.
Turkey’s military intervened in February, helping balance the conflict until violence was stopped by a Moscow-brokered truce last month.
However, MBZ both tried to prevent the ceasefire agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from being implemented, and has since called Assad to encourage him to re-launch his offensive, MEE has learned.
Days before the ceasefire deal was struck in a four-and-a-half-hour meeting in the Kremlin on 5 March, the crown prince sent Ali al-Shamsi, the deputy of MBZ’s brother and national security adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed, to negotiate a deal with Assad in Damascus.
According to sources familiar with MBZ’s plan, the crown prince agreed to pay Assad $3bn to reignite the offensive against Idlib, the rebels’ last redoubt, $1bn of which was due to be paid before the end of March. By the time the ceasefire was announced, $250m had already been paid up front.
The deal was negotiated in the strictest secrecy. Abu Dhabi was particularly concerned that the Americans did not get to hear of it. Washington supported the Turkish military’s efforts to confront Assad’s forces in Idlib, and had already expressed its anger with the crown prince over the release of $700m of frozen Iranian assets in October.
One high-level source told MEE: “During the Idlib clashes, al-Shamsi met Bashar and asked him not to reach an agreement with Erdogan on a ceasefire. This happened just before Erdogan’s meeting with Putin. Assad replied that he needs financial support.
“He said that Iran has stopped paying because they don’t have cash, and the Russians don’t pay anyway. So he asked for $5bn in direct support for Syria. They agreed on $3bn, $1bn paid before the end of March,” the source added.
When Assad started to rebuild his forces for a push on Turkish positions in Idlib, the Russians, who monitor military movements on the ground closely in Syria, got wind of the plan.
'The message Shoygu delivered was clear: "We do not want you to restart this offensive. Russia wants the ceasefire to continue"'
“Putin was furious,” the source continued.
Putin sent his defence minister, Sergei Shoygu, on an unplanned visit to Damascus to stop the Syrian government firing up the offensive again.
“The message Shoygu delivered was clear: ‘We do not want you to restart this offensive. Russia wants the ceasefire to continue.’ By then the Emiratis had already paid $250m to Damascus,” the source said.
A senior Turkish official has confirmed that the UAE made such an offer to the Syrian government. “All I can say is that the content of the report is true,” the official said.
Middle East Eye has approached the UAE authorities for comment.
Sources told Middle East Eye that MBZ persisted in his attempts to get Assad to break the ceasefire even after Shoygu’s visit. A second tranche of the initial $1bn was delivered to Damascus.
The crown prince’s motives for paying Assad to re-launch his offensive were twofold.
Firstly, Abu Dhabi wanted to tie the Turkish army up in a costly war in northwestern Syria. Turkey had just launched its fourth offensive in the country, after Syrian government troops killed 34 Turkish soldiers on 27 February, Ankara’s deadliest day in the nine-year conflict.
Secondly, MBZ wanted to stretch the resources of the Turkish army and distract Erdogan from successfully defending Tripoli from Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya, where Ankara recently came to the aid of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
As soon as Shoygu quashed Emirati attempts to break the ceasefire, MBZ became anxious that the plan would leak out to the Americans. He needed a cover story for the money he had already paid Damascus and he also wanted to continue to persuade the Syrian government to break the ceasefire. The crown prince called the president in Damascus.
“The UAE did not tell the Americans. So with all of this, the UAE became very concerned that the news will come out, especially after the fuss about the unfreezing of Iranian assets. That was the reason MBZ called Assad,” the high-level source said.
'The UAE became very concerned that the news will come out, especially after the fuss about the unfreezing of Iranian assets. That was the reason MBZ called Assad'
News was then released about the conversation between the two leaders. MBZ said on Twitter: “I assured him of the support of the UAE and its willingness to help the Syrian people. Humanitarian solidarity during trying times supersedes all matters, and Syria and her people will not stand alone.”
Warming relations between the United Arab Emirates and the Syrian government have been public for some time. Though the Emiratis backed the opposition when war broke out in 2011, last year it reopened its Damascus embassy, and officials have made efforts to speak about ties in increasingly effusive language.
The conversation between the crown prince and Syrian president was more than merely a continuation of this trend, however, and suspicions about the true nature of MBZ’s call arose over its timing.
MBZ wanted to give the impression that his call was in solidarity with Syria facing the coronavirus outbreak, although when they spoke Damascus was denying any major outbreak in the country.
According to sources, the crown prince’s main motive for wanting to bog the Turkish army down in Idlib was the situation in Libya.
The year-long offensive on Tripoli mounted by Haftar’s UAE-backed Libyan National Army has been stalled by Ankara’s deployment of drones, Turkish troops and Syrian mercenaries.
However for Putin, who also backs Haftar against the GNA in Tripoli, Russia’s strategic alliance with Turkey trumped all other considerations. The maintenance of a ceasefire in Idlib was more important.
MBZ was thus left with a mess on his hands that he was desperate to clear up, the source said.
Additional reporting by Ragip Soylu.
Palestinians who need to verify whether their permits to remain in Israel are still valid have been advised by Israel to download an app that enables the military access to their mobile phones.
The app, known as "Al Munasiq," or “The Coordinator” in Arabic, allows the army to track the user’s phone location as well as access any notifications they receive, files they download or save, and the device's camera.
Palestinians who are granted a permit to reside in Israel – normally for humanitarian reasons or for family reunification – are usually required to physically visit the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) offices to check their status.
As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, the offices are now closed.
According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, in order to install the app, users need to approve the following terms: “We may make use of the information we collect for any purpose, including for security purposes.
"You agree and declare that you know that all the information you are asked to provide is not required by law or defense regulations, and it is provided of your own free will, so that we can make use of it as we see fit. In addition, you consent that we may store the information you have provided to us in our databases based on our considerations.”
In a letter, Adi Lustigman and Benjamin Agsteribbe, lawyers with Hamoked, an Israel-based human rights organisation, wrote: “The connection between clarifying the status of the permits and revealing private information is unclear.
"Placing these requirements as the sole default for a person to use the application is extremely unreasonable, and cynically exploits public distress and panic in these grim times for the inappropriate purpose to invade one’s privacy in a manner that damages human dignity.”
Haaretz quoted Cogat as responding that the app is open to all Palestinians residing in Israel “with the intention of making information accessible to the Palestinian public in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip in a digital and convenient way”.
Cogat said it had closed its offices and service centres in the occupied West Bank following orders from the health ministry.
“As a result, a resident who wants to receive information as to the status of the permit they hold can use the telephone service centre, or ‘The Coordinator’ application alternatively," the organisation said.
"We would like to make clear that no order has been issued to download the app as a condition for inquiring about one’s status, but it is just a recommendation for the convenience of the residents.”
The Bahraini government said on Wednesday it would pay the salaries of 100,000 registered private sector employees for three months starting in April to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus on the economy.
The decision will cost the government 215 million Bahraini dinars ($570m) until June.
According to a statement by the labour ministry, owners of private sector enterprises will now be able to sign up for the government’s service, via its online portal, to cover the costs of salaries for the months of April, May and June 2020.
The electronic service will enable company owners to register bank account details through their account with the social insurance agency.
The move, according to the ministry, comes as part of efforts by the Gulf kingdom to “mitigate the social and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, and to maintain the growth of the private sector and enhance its vital role in supporting the wheel of the national economy”.
The government also said it would pay electricity and water bills for all Bahraini citizens and businesses, and will extend some tax breaks on properties and tourism.
The initiatives are part of an $11bn stimulus package announced by the government for the private sector to alleviate the economic costs of the virus outbreak.
The Bahraini Ministry of Health announced on Tuesday that although the total number of Covid-19 cases had reached 349, only four of them are in critical condition.
The ministry announced the death of the first patient on Tuesday, a 70-year-old Bahraini national with underlying health conditions.
The government has conducted more than 50,127 tests, and 458 people have left quarantine after testing negative for the virus.
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has ordered the government to cover all expenses of treating Covid-19 patients in the country, for both citizens and residents.
Turkey has made significant progress in treating coronavirus patients in the early stages of the disease with the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, Turkish officials have said.
“Turkey had stockpiled one million units of them before the first case appeared in the country,” Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Tuesday evening in a live broadcast, without specifying the name of the drug.
A senior Turkish official with knowledge of the stockpile told Middle East Eye that the drug was hydroxychloroquine and that it was being sold under the brand name Plaquenil.
“Many countries prescribe this drug to intubated patients,” Koca said. “However, our science board suggested that the drug is really beneficial in the early stages to prevent the spread of the virus in the body.”
The health minister reminded viewers that one of the fundamental features of the disease was lung infection.
“We believe beginning early treatment [with this drug] played a big role in reducing the rate of lung infection among the patients,” he said.
Ever since US President Donald Trump promoted the drug as a “game-changer” for treating patients, medical professionals around the world have expressed mixed views on its use.
Trump’s comments followed clinical research by French doctor Didier Raoult, who claimed that he saw promising results on a small sample of patients in February.
However, Raoult’s research has come under fire over its methodology.
Many doctors argue that the drug has not been tested enough yet to be used to treat coronavirus patients.
However, earlier this month, doctors in China reported that hydroxychloroquine had helped to speed up the recovery of some patients who had mild symptoms.
The Turkish official told MEE that the drug was effective against pneumonia, which is seen as among the leading causes of death for coronavirus patients.
Most of the patients taken to intensive care or who are put on ventilators are there because they have developed pneumonia.
“The minister, instead of underlying the importance of the drug itself, has pointed out the benefit of using the drug in the early stages, before the patient becomes severely ill,” the official said.
Statistics released by the Turkish health ministry on Tuesday showed that since beginning the treatment, new cases of lung disease among coronavirus patients have greatly decreased.
On 24 March, 60 percent of coronavirus cases registered were patients with pneumonia, while on 6 April that had fallen to 19.5 percent.
The Turkish Clinical Microbiology and Infection Diseases Association (KLIMIK) said last month that data on the use of the drug was still limited, and warned that it should not be used as a prophylaxis (a treatment given to prevent a disease).
“It should be appropriate to use it in the early stages for some of the coronavirus patients with symptoms,” the statement said.
The association warned that it would not be appropriate to use the drug for medical workers to protect themselves before engaging with the virus.
Koca said hospitals in Turkey had enough stocks of the drug and that the country was in a better state than many Western nations.
“Our intensive care units capacity is only at 62 percent use. Even the use of bed capacity hasn't reached 50 percent,” he said.
Turkey announced on Tuesday that 76 more people died from the disease in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 725.
The health ministry said that 3,892 more patients had tested positive, the highest in a single day so far, with the surge in numbers taking the total to 34,109 cases.
However, health officials said given the increase in the numbers of daily tests, which reached 20,023 on Tuesday, the new number of infections was not a matter of concern because the numbers were stalling.
The country has conducted 222,868 tests so far.
Since the virus reached Turkey, the government has unleashed an array of measures aimed at curbing its spread, including closing down schools, universities and cafes, banning congregational prayers, indefinitely postponing sporting events and suspending flights to many countries.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan extended a mandatory confinement order for everyone under the age of 20, but stopped short of declaring a complete lockdown.
The government earlier imposed a curfew on senior citizens above the age of 65.
Five civilians were killed on Wednesday when their car was hit in a bomb attack in Turkey's southeast, local officials said.
The governor of Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir province said the attack was carried out in the early hours by "members of the PKK terror organisation," referring to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party.
The PKK has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies.
However, no organisation has admitted responsibility for the attack, AFP reported.
Although violence has surged since a ceasefire broke down in July 2015, the PKK usually targets security forces.
The governor's office said security forces were trying to identify and catch the perpetrators of Wednesday's attack, which took place at 12.30am in Kulp district.
Last year, 31 elected mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) were removed over alleged ties to the PKK and replaced by government appointees.
Among them was Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli, mayor of Diyarbakir city, who was later jailed for more than nine years for membership of an armed terrorist group. The HDP denies any links to the PKK.
The coronavirus could eventually infect between 10,000 and 200,000 people in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's health minister has said, urging the public to adhere more closely to state directives against mixing and movement.
The country of some 30 million inhabitants has so far reported 2,795 cases and 41 deaths, the highest in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, despite halting all passenger flights, suspending most commercial activities and imposing a 24-hour curfew in major cities including the capital Riyadh.
"We stand today at a decisive moment as a society in raising our sense of responsibility and contributing together with determination to stop the spread of this pandemic," Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah said in a rare televised address on Tuesday.
Four studies by infectious disease experts indicated the number of cases was likely to reach between 10,000 and 200,000 in coming weeks, he said.
The virus has already infected more than 1.3 million people worldwide.
Rabiah said the 24-hour curfews, imposed on Monday night, were needed because some were not taking the danger of infection seriously but leaving their homes and gathering in groups.
Passenger road traffic had only fallen by around 50 percent.
The interior ministry subsequently brought forward the start of curfew in all areas not already under a 24-hour lockdown to 3pm from 7pm.
Despite the new restrictions, many people were still moving about on Tuesday morning in Riyadh, Reuters reported.
Rabiah said keeping infections at current levels for four to 12 months would give the kingdom more time to prepare and prevent the virus from overwhelming the health system, as it has in other countries.
King Salman approved another 7bn riyals ($1.86bn) for the health ministry to combat the disease, and another 32bn ($8.5bn) could be disbursed before the end of the year, Rabiah added.
He said the economy and planning minister would speak later about new decisions to combat the epidemic's impact on the Saudi economy, the largest in the Arab world.
One of the peak moments of the Jewish Passover Seder ceremony, a combination of outrageously big feasts and the lengthy story of the Israelites’ Exodus and freedom from Egyptian slavery, is the question usually asked by the youngest (often-reluctant) member of the family: "What’s different tonight or what has changed?"
It is usually answered by four traditional answers, referring to the special rituals of that night.
In Israel 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic, the question sounds somewhere between sad and comic. Everything has changed.
The very significance of Passover to celebrate, year after year, the ethos of exit from slavery to liberation, collective and individual freedom is to be celebrated under nationwide curfew. The call “let my people go” is substituted by “let my people stay home”.
The family-oriented nature of Seder - the Hebrew name of that special night - can be reduced to one decree mentioned in the text read around the table: “You shall tell thy son.”
'Out of necessity we will see for the first time women taking charge in the absence of a man at the table'
- Meir Azar, senior rabbi
That is the essence, the story conveyed for centuries, from generation to generation, to remember how Israelites under the leadership of the prophet Moses (cherished by Muslims and Christians too) made the long journey from bondage to freedom, teaching the value of liberty and the high price often attached to it.
The universal message will be hard to convey in a time of corona. Under strict restrictions, older parents and elderly grandparents are separated from children and grandchildren to keep them safe.
Each household on its own, which means many lonely people. “You shall tell thy son”, the intimate mission, sounds different transmitted at an organised Zoom meeting.
“It is the beginning of a major change in the Jewish tradition,” says Meir Azar, senior rabbi in Beit Daniel, the largest reformed congregation in Israel, noting that quarantine and self-isolation is keeping relatives apart.
“Due to circumstances, we witness the rise of a new generation of Seder ceremony leaders. No longer just the father or the same uncle year after year. For instance, out of necessity we will see for the first time women taking charge in the absence of a man at the table,” he tells Middle East Eye.
“In more general terms, Passover is a story about a dream and better days for everybody. These days, more than ever, we are part of a global world. Whoever celebrated Passover out of the relevant context does not understand the nature of this holiday.”
Under these circumstances, Seder, the name of that long night with its unique dishes and the Haggadah tale of the Exodus complicated by old Aramaic phrases, loses its basic meaning.
Seder means order in Hebrew. And order defines it. The whole ceremony is meticulously structured - when to read what, when to eat what, when to raise one of the four mandatory glasses of wine.
Nothing orderly in April 2020, however. Order has been disrupted by a plague, not that different from those inflicted on the Pharaoh to force him to free the Israelites. Yet this one - so far - makes no sense, its reasons and its purpose still a big mystery.
Disruptions come in all forms: Palestinian workers from occupied territories often travel to Israel looking for work; nowadays, many of them head back from Israel not to be in isolation there. It is no longer a one-way ticket.
In the midst of this gloomy situation, some things stay constant: the food-shopping craze. Well, that can be easily understood.
Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, no time for one for the road. Israelis, so it seems, vowed it was not going to happen to them again. They stock up on food as if preparing for another biblical 40-year journey through the desert.
God is probably not going to rain “bread from heaven” again as he did in the desert, nor will he send quail as he did to satisfy the hunger of grumbling Israelites.
Therefore, Israelis stock up on all “kosher for Passover” food, unleavened and devoid of wheat according to Passover religious dietary restrictions. All the state’s “hametz” - food not kosher for Passover that has to be removed from the holiday-compliant public sphere - is symbolically sold to a non-Jewish Israelis, just to be returned after the Passover week. There are always the jokes asking, “What if he doesn’t want to give it back?” He always does.
The public sphere of Passover 2020 has changed drastically. Gone is the seasonal new clothes buying buzz. Stores are closed, and the empty streets are void of shoppers carrying shopping bags, replaced by fleeting ghosts wearing masks. Until not long ago, the enemy was “the other” carrying a bomb; now it is the other, not wearing a mask.
Gone from the public sphere are the rituals performed in the Ultra-Orthodox towns and neighbourhoods, the burning of the “hametz” and the immersing of utensils in boiling water to make them suitable for Passover kosher food.
What is for the Ultra-Orthodox a matter of religious observance has become touristic curiosity for secular Israelis. These rituals cannot be performed in coronavirus-stricken streets and gardens on Passover 2020. Certainly not when Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods are now under military control.
Soldiers in uniform have taken over the streets of Bnei Brak, an Ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. Over the last weeks, Bnei Brak, known as “the most crowded settlement in Israel”, has become a hotspot of Covid-19.
It has to do with the density of the population. The community hosts huge families with children in double figures crammed in small apartments, who are now totally disengaged from all Israeli life.
Most residents do not consume secular media, and have no smart phones nor internet. Strange as it sounds, coronavirus has been for many Ultra-Orthodox a vague notion for too long. In fact, it became more real when the first news about the many Covid-19 victims in the Ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn reached them in Bnei Brak. Brooklyn, in many ways, is closer to some of them than Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, their local spiritual leaders - rabbis and others - encouraged them to stick to the routine of crowded synagogues and other communal customs. Here the rabbis are the authority, not the state.
Under these circumstances, the virus has been spreading in the city. Police stepped in and tightened the closure on Bnei Brak. The friction was painful to both sides.
Calling policemen “Nazi” is not that unusual in small but radical Ultra-Orthodox circles who defy all state authority. The military stepped in. That certainly is “close encounters of the third kind”.
Many Ultra-Orthodox object to serving in the military, and are in fact exempt from mandatory service in Israel. For both sides, it is often the first time they meet each other in person for Passover, a particularly sensitive time of the year.
Bnei Brak looks like a city under occupation, even if in this case the soldiers are here to help. They do the family shopping if necessary, they distribute the traditional food packages to the poor and needy, a Passover tradition strictly observed.
Even the military chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, paid a short visit to the city struggling with virus and desperately clinging to the strictest Passover rituals.
In large circles of secular Israel on Passover 2020, the arch enemy is not the ancient Egyptians who turned them into slaves, nor the contemporary Arabs. Hate speech and racism rapidly shifted from Arab-hating to hating the Ultra-Orthodox community that has been misled by its leaders, including the health minister, Yaakov Litzman.
Trying to accommodate his constituency and breaking the regulations his own ministry published, Litzman, who is also head of a major Ultra-Orthodox party, and his wife got the virus.
The enemy is now not the one across the Green Line or across the border. The enemy is the one across the city line in Ultra-Orthodox attire. We are all experiencing a new version of subordination to a foreign entity.
Freedom is isolation. Liberty is obedience and curfew.
Egypt will ban any public religious gatherings during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan starting in around two weeks to counter the spread of the coronavirus, a government statement has said.
Muslims usually break the fast at sunset together with their families, go to the mosque to pray and spend maximum time with relatives.
However, with health experts recommending social distancing measures during the global coronavirus crisis, Egypt will ban any gatherings and public iftars, or fast-breaking meals, as well as collective social activities, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments said in a statement on Tuesday.
Typically mass iftars are held for poor people.
The ban will also apply to the seclusion of Itikaf, when Muslims spend the last 10 days of the month in mosques to pray and meditate, the ministry said.
Egypt has reported more than 1,300 confirmed cases of the coronavirus with more than 80 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.
Egypt is home to some 100 million people and also the seat of the Al-Azhar university, Egypt's highest religious authority and one of the world's most eminent seats of Sunni Muslim learning.
Ramadan will start around 23 April depending on the sighting of the moon marking the start of the month.
Last month, Egypt ordered mosques and churches to shut their doors to worshippers. Prayer calls are broadcast via loudspeakers.
Moroccans who leave their homes without wearing face masks risk prison sentences of up to three months and a fine of up to $126 (£102), the government has said, under a new law designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The new order took effect on Tuesday after the country announced 1,120 people had contracted Covid-19 and 80 people had died from the disease.
Authorities said the face masks would be sold at the subsidised price of $0.08 each in order maximise the number of people who have access to them.
Taofiq Moucharrraf, a spokesman for the industry ministry, said the country planned to produce nearly six million face masks per day, which is almost double its current amount of 3.3 million.
Tuesday's decision comes after an official report, quoted by the Le Figaro newspaper, said that 8,600 Moroccans had been arrested and prosecuted for flouting lockdown rules which came into effect on 19 March.
Under the strict rules, people can only leave their homes to buy essentials such as food or medicine, and only those with permits can go to work.
In an attempt to help prevent a potential outbreak in the country's overcrowded prisons, Morocco's King Mohammed VI pardoned 5,654 prisoners on Sunday.
The freed individuals were selected based on their age, health, good conduct and length of detention.
The king also ordered authorities to take "all the necessary measures to reinforce the protection of detainees in prisons". Morocco has an estimated 232 prisoners per 100,000 people.
Still, rights groups have urged authorities to release all political prisoners, including those held in preventive detention or nearing the end of the terms, due to the pandemic which has infected more than 1.3 million people worldwide.
A family court in Dubai has suspended all personal legal services, including attestations of marriage contracts and divorce certificates, as part of the Emirates' latest measure to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
The Personal Status Court in Dubai said on Tuesday that it was suspending all legal services related to family matters until further notice, Gulf News reported.
The suspension was part of an effort to prevent social gatherings that would usually occur during such occasions.
The court said the decision was based on the rules of Islamic jurisprudence, which state: "Repelling an evil is preferable to securing a benefit".
According to the World Health Organisation's latest tally, the UAE has recorded 2,076 cases of the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19. At least 11 people have died from the disease.
Since the virus reached the UAE, authorities across the seven Emirates have unleashed an array of measures aimed at curbing its spread, including a ban on all all social gatherings, including weddings.
Border crossing have been closed, along with shopping malls, entertainment centres, schools and any other businesses deemed "non-essential".
Public transport including trams and metro services have also been suspended in the country.
A 24-hour curfew was introduced on Thursday following a dramatic uptick in the number of cases across the country.
The country did announce on Monday that Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, the UAE’s biggest carriers, had resumed limited passenger flights, two weeks after all flights to and from the country had been halted.
At a 2014 Fox Business panel, Kayleigh McEnany was all smiles. Sitting next to her was Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of the white nationalist group Proud Boys. Her smiles persisted even as he said that Muslims are genetically inferior because of "inbreeding".
She also appeared to agree with McInnes when he argued that Muslims are "totally irrational".
On Tuesday, she was appointed as Donald Trump's new White House press secretary, replacing Stephanie Grisham, who held the job for just nine months and did not hold any press briefings.
McEnany, 31, a Harvard Law graduate who was serving as the Trump campaign's spokeswoman, is now the US president's fourth press secretary since he took office early in 2017.
Siding with a self-avowed white supremacist has not been the only instance that McEnany has made anti-Muslim pronouncements.
"Obama endlessly preaches tolerance of Islam but never mentions this - 'Genocide: Christian Population in Iraq Drops 80% in a Decade'," she wrote on Twitter in 2016, rejecting then-President Barack Obama's assertion that Islam was a peaceful religion.
The number of Iraqi Christians has dwindled in recent years largely due to sectarian violence and civil unrest ushered in by former President Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Trump's new press secretary has also pushed back against the idea that US foreign policy in the Middle East may be contributing to anger that causes militant attacks.
"US foreign policy has done a lot of good for the Muslim people. I think Bush liberated 15 million Muslims from the hands of dictators," she said in 2014.
As a Trump advocate, in 2017, she argued that "deadly political correctness perpetuates terrorism," berating European governments' immigration policies.
'Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hatred is not a disqualifier to serve in the Trump administration. In fact, it represents its twisted values'
- Robert McCaw, CAIR
"Refusing to utter the words 'radical Islamic extremism,' opening the door to millions of half-vetted refugees and decrying the concepts of borders and assimilation have resulted in a culture in crisis – a culture without democratic, freedom-loving identity and constantly under murderous attack from cancers within," she wrote in a column for the Hill.
Although she would later add a disclaimer that "most immigrants are good and most Muslims are peaceful", she ends the piece by backing Trump in his feud with London's Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan.
Trump had attacked Khan over comments taken out of context in which the mayor called for calm after a deadly militant attack in London.
Khan and Trump had been engaged in a long feud dating back to 2015 when Trump called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States".
At the time, McEnany also defended Trump's proposal, stressing that his call for a Muslim ban was temporary.
On a CNN appearance late in 2016, she said Islam differs from Christianity and Judaism, citing a false assertion that "90 percent of the Quran is in fact a legal doctrine and is Sharia".
McEnany is the latest in a long list of Trump appointees that Muslim advocates say hold hostile views towards Islam.
On Tuesday, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) called for McEnany's immediate dismissal.
"Trump's vetting process continues to turn a blind eye when it comes to bigotry, particularly anti-Muslim hatred," Robert McCaw, CAIR's government affairs director, told Middle East Eye.
"Under normal circumstances, President Trump's new press secretary wouldn't have had the opportunity to serve in the White House the moment such bigotry was revealed.
"Anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hatred is not a disqualifier to serve in the Trump administration. In fact, it represents its twisted values."
The White House did not return MEE's request for comment.
The chairman of Lebanon's state-owned airline has defended a decision to charge nationals stranded abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic for flights home, at rates some have called exorbitant.
Mohammad Hout, the chairman of Middle East Airlines (MEA), said on Monday that the company was "unable to support the expatriates returning from abroad" with free flights if it wanted to stay in business.
On Sunday, Lebanese nationals stranded abroad began taking special flights home but Middle East Eye found that the tickets were being priced at prohibitive prices, ranging from $650-1,800 for economy class, and $1,300-$3,900 for business.
"Our priority is the continuity of the company," Hout said, explaining that "tickets are priced at cost without profit".
But the cost of operating has skyrocketed due to global travel bans aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19.
Last week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned that airlines in the Middle East region had lost around $19bn in revenues since the start of the pandemic.
Lebanon closed its international airport on 15 March and has since renewed that lockdown for another two weeks, extending it into mid-April.
"The company incurs a loss of about 35 million dollars a month as a result of the airport’s closure. We were making losses before, but not as much as during the coronavirus crisis," Hout said, adding that the company was "incapable" of covering the cost of flights.
Last week MEE spoke to more than 15 Lebanese nationals who had applied to return home since the country imposed the travel ban.
Several said they were left to fend for themselves without proper guidance or assistance from relevant authorities despite the high costs. None of the nationals MEE spoke to were notified that they would have to pay for their flights home.
With the Lebanese currency, the lira, losing almost 50 percent of its value in recent months, a decision by the country's banks to restrict US dollar withdrawals and transfers abroad has added an extra layer of complications to the issue.
Lebanon said on Sunday it was tightening lockdown measures further to contain viral contagion, restricting the movement of cars, trucks, and motorcycles to three assigned days per week.
So far, it has recorded 527 confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to the most recent tally by the World Health Organisation (WHO), with at least 18 fatalities.
Iran's foreign ministry has urged the international community to ignore US sanctions and help the country in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Abbas Mousavi, a foreign ministry spokesman, also pressed Washington to temporarily lift its sanctions on Tuesday after the Islamic Republic recorded 133 deaths from the virus overnight, bringing the country's total death toll to 3,872.
"We have conveyed a message to all countries and to American officials to denounce the embargo measures which are unjust and illegal, and which should be suspended under these conditions," Mousavi said in a statement.
"We call on all countries of the civilised world not to apply the inhumane, unlawful and unjust measures," he added.
The hardest-hit country in the Middle East, Iran has recorded more than 60,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, known officially as Covid-19.
While the Trump administration has said there are no sanctions on medicines or humanitarian assistance going to Iran, many banks and companies have refrained from taking part in any such ventures out of fear of getting caught up in US secondary sanctions.
Several US politicians, rights groups, and activists have also called on the administration to temporarily lift its sanctions, following in the footsteps of China and Russia.
However, the Trump administration has repeatedly shown no interest in easing its "maximum pressure" campaign, and last month piled new sanctions on the country.
"The United States maintains broad exceptions and authorisations for humanitarian aid including agriculture commodities, food, medicine, and medical devices to help the people of Iran combat the coronavirus," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement last month.
The US unilaterally launched its "maximum pressure" campaign in 2018 after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was signed by the US; Iran; France; Germany; the UK; the European Union; China; and Russia in 2015.
Its aim was to curb Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting heavy sanctions against Iran.
According to Human Rights Watch, the sanctions have devastated Iran's flagging healthcare system, hindering the ability for ordinary Iranians to access health care.
Sanctions have also more broadly impacted Iranians by closing down private businesses and forcing the value of Iran's currency, the rial, to plummet.
Meanwhile, in the US, coronavirus cases continue to increase at a staggering rate. There are currently 369,000 confirmed cases and nearly 11,000 deaths, according to numbers collated by Johns Hopkins University.
The sentencing of yet another leading figure close to Algeria's anti-government movement has sparked an outcry, as authorities continue their clampdown on opposition figures and journalists despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Fersaoui was arrested in October 2019 during a demonstration in support of detainees, after being accused of attacking “the integrity of the national territory" with a Facebook post that criticised the crackdown on the anti-government uprising and called for a democratic transition.
"The sentencing of comrade Abdelouahab is a heinous act and a crime against every Algerian citizen and a crime against the peaceful struggle," RAJ said in a statement after the verdict.
"History will bear witness to the revenge policy of the regime."
Online prisoner support group, the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees, described the sentencing as "heavy" and condemned the judicial harassment "against activists and detainees during this period of citizen confinement".
According to the rights group, 44 people linked to the Hirak - another name for the popular movement - are currently imprisoned, with hundreds having been arrested and detained since the crackdown in June 2019.
"Abdelouahab Fersaoui didn't steal, didn't kill and if he had been corrupt and working for your interests, you would have paid him off," Fersaoui's wife said after his sentencing.
"His only wrongdoing is believing in a new Algeria and freedom,” she added.
Said Salhi, vice president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, who had expected Fersaoui to be released, said the ruling confirmed "concern about the risk of escalating repression”.
Meanwhile, lawyer Fetta Sadat condemned the judicial system as a tool used "by certain parties to repress and scare the Algerian people”.
Activists also criticise Algeria for cracking down on opposition figures amid the global outbreak of coronavirus.
While Algerians have been confined to their homes and have temporarily suspended demonstrations over fears of contracting the virus, authorities have extended the imprisonment of opposition leaders, detained prominent journalists and summoned for questioning dozens of political activists.
"At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic is prompting governments around the world to consider early release of prisoners, the authorities have decided to detain and convict people solely for exercising their rights to liberty of expression,” Hassina Oussedik, director of Amnesty International Algeria, said.
Last month, after Algeria reported a spike in infection cases, demonstrators suspended their weekly marches against the ruling elite, heeding a presidential order aimed to contain the spread of the virus.
Fersaoui's sentencing came one day after a journalist was handed an eight-month prison term for providing images of national protests to foreign media outlets.
Sofiane Merakchi, a correspondent for the Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen, was also accused of "concealment of equipment” while covering the weekly protests.
Merakchi was one of the first journalists to be arrested back in September 2019 and is expected to be released next month after having served the majority of his sentence.
In March, prominent political activist Karim Tabbou, whose trial was scheduled to take place yesterday but has been postponed until 27 April, was summoned before a judge for a surprise trial his lawyers were not informed of, three days before he was to be released.
His imprisonment was extended by another year and he will likely spend six more months in prison despite his ailing health, which had worsened in prison to near paralysis.
Khaled Drareni, an Algeria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders who has covered the protests extensively since they first began on 22 February 2019, has also been detained since last month awaiting trial.
Last week, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced the release of over 5,000 prisoners to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons. However, the pardon was not extended to any of the political detainees incarcerated.
Algeria is Africa’s worst-affected country in the coronavirus pandemic, with over 1,400 cases reported and 173 deaths.
On Monday, the North African country's youngest Covid-19 victim, aged nine, died in the city of Ouargla, while an 18-month-old baby tested positive for the virus in the eastern city of Skikda.
The ongoing crackdown, combined with food shortages and ramped up prices of essential goods amidst an economic crisis, are behind growing fears that the Algerian government's inadequate response to the pandemic could provoke major social unrest.
Black Muslims in the United States fear they could be at a higher risk from coronavirus infections, as cases continue to climb and hospitals in communities of colour struggle to flatten the curve.
More than 10,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States - and the pandemic hasn’t even reached its peak.
As the crisis worsens, a lack of access to quality healthcare, insurance and other essential resources has left the community feeling they could be among the most impacted.
Making up a fifth of all US Muslims, Black Muslims sit at multiple intersections and are often rendered invisible within both the larger Black and Muslim community.
'We consistently have substandard care. We don't have access to the things that larger hospitals do in middle class or upper middle-class neighbourhood'
- Donna Neil-Demir, health advisor for the Zakat Foundation of America
Dr Kameelah Rashad, the co-director and founder of the Muslim Wellness Foundation, told Middle East Eye that decades of unequal healthcare access and research that is racially biased, could result in Black Muslims witnessing an alarming rate of deaths in their communities.
"From my vantage point, there was not the sufficient inclusion of Black Muslim concerns," Rashad said.
"Sometimes, the underlying assumption is that this is going to do damage to an already well-resourced community... We as a community are sort of an invisible third-world community right in the West."
The decision to form the coalition comes as cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, are reporting a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases among African Americans, with black residents accounting for more than 40 percent of confirmed Covid-19 cases.
"Unless we mobilise - and do that effectively and efficiently - [Black Muslims] will be disproportionately impacted in a year where there's a census and a presidential election," Rashad said.
At its core, the coalition draws from the black freedom movement of the 1950s to 70s, and social justice movements. On its website, the coalition describes itself as grounded in the frameworks of healing-centered engagement, and the cycle of liberation.
Part of the coalition's focus includes disseminating accurate information and sharing best practices and resources, such as fact sheets in Somali, Haitian Creole, Yoruba, and other languages.
Margari Hill, the executive director of MuslimARC, said that a lack of medical studies and research on Black Muslims meant there wasn't enough data on the community.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible to predict how Black Muslims will be impacted by the coronavirus.
"Taking the shahada [Muslim declaration of faith] does not make us immune to any of the vulnerabilities that Black people face," said Hill, who also serves as co-director of National Black Muslim Covid Coalition.
Hospitals in predominantly black communities have raised alarm over a lack of adequate supplies, staffing, and protection to handle the pandemic.
Experts say that the government’s unwillingness to track the virus by race could obscure a crucial underlying reality that a disproportionate number of those who die will be black.
Donna Neil-Demir, a health advisor for the Zakat Foundation of America, told MEE: "We consistently have substandard care. We don't have access to the things that larger hospitals do in middle-class or upper-middle-class neighbourhoods."
Dr Aswhin Vasan, a public health expert, agreed telling USA Today, "The virus is an equal-opportunity crisis... but the impact and burden of it is not going to be shared equally."
Black Muslim communities are also economically vulnerable. In 2018, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found that one-third of Muslims in the US live at or below the poverty line, and Black Muslim households are more likely to earn less than $30,000 a year than other Muslim racial groups.
With the US recording soaring unemployment rates, Black, Latino and other minority workers are also less likely to be able to work from home.
Black Muslims are in every demographic - they are disabled, low-income, LGBTQ, older, immigrants, refugees, and they are incarcerated.
As the coronavirus spread through jails, prisons and detention centers, it impacts Black Muslims; as some advocate for increased surveillance or police power to stem the pandemic, it also impacts Black Muslims.
Rashad warned, "What may be a setback for one community is going to be catastrophic for ours."
'When you help black people, you're helping everybody. Centering Black Muslims, who face overlapping, intersecting oppressions, will make the Covid response much stronger'
- Margari Hill, executive director of MuslimARC
When it comes to these densely populated cities and others, Rashad worries, "We will be seen as disposable, as unfortunate casualties to this pandemic."
The coalition isn't focused only on the pandemic but in the aftermath. For now, it continues to assemble resources for Black Muslims on the coronavirus and coordinate events such as a webinar on medical apartheid.
And although its focus may be on what appears to be a small population, Hill said: "When you help black people, you're helping everybody.
"Centering Black Muslims, who face overlapping, intersecting oppressions, will make the Covid response much stronger."
Israel is ready to negotiate a deal with the Hamas movement to obtain the return of slain and captive Israelis in the besieged Gaza Strip in exchange for Palestinians prisoners, the prime minister's office said on Tuesday.
The negotiations would be carried out through intermediaries, the office of Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
“The coordinator for captives and missing people, Yaron Bloom, and his staff, together with the National Security Council and the defence establishment are prepared to act constructively with a goal to return the bodies and missing people and end this matter, and call for an immediate discussion through intermediaries,” Israeli news outlet the Jerusalem Post quoted the statement as saying.
On 1 April, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett linked any assistance Tel Aviv might offer Palestinians in Gaza in their fight against the coronavirus with the return of two soldiers who went missing during the 2014 war in the enclave.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, meanwhile, had said on Thursday that “there is a possibility for an initiative to move forward with the (prisoner swap) file".
Israeli state news outlet KAN quoted senior Hamas officials on Monday as saying that Israel had thus far ignored a proposal by Sinwar to discuss a deal in which the Israelis would be returned in exchange for the release of some female, elderly or sick Palestinian prisoners.
The bodies of Israeli soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin have been held in Gaza since the 2014 war. Two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, wandered into Gaza in 2014 and 2015, and are believed to be held captive by Hamas, the de facto ruling party in the blockaded territory.
Meanwhile, according to rights group Addameer, some 5,000 Palestinians are detained by Israel amid growing fears that the novel coronavirus could proliferate rapidly inside prisons.
Gaza's healthcare system is near collapse after several wars and 13 years of siege, which have stymied any potential for long-term economic development.
The territory's health ministry has repeatedly warned that it is ill-equipped to combat the spread of the disease owing to acute shortages of medicines, laboratory supplies and other equipment used to carry out coronavirus examinations.
A secret funeral held in the Kurdish city of Erbil in late March has been blamed for a spike in coronavirus infections in Iraq's Kurdistan region.
Officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) confirmed 41 new Covid-19 cases in the capital Erbil on Monday - 17 women, 15 men and nine children - which marks the highest number of infections the autonomous region has seen in one day.
'Doctors, nurses, hospital staff and security forces have all been working around the clock to save lives and have been asking people to stay at home and not to gather under any circumstances'
- Idris Zeyad Rafaat, medical student
The confirmed cases were distributed as follows: two in Soran district, three in the Sidakan district, one in the village of Halja Bchook, and the other 35 cases in nine neighbourhoods across Erbil's city centre, according to a statement by the KRG health ministry.
The new infections bring the total number of reported cases to 277.
The statement said that 32 out of the 41 reported cases came after contact with a single infected person at a secret funeral gathering held in Erbil’s Karizan neighbourhood on 21 March.
“We ask the people who went to the funerals of Fatah Hamad Salih and Fatima Rahman Hussein in Karizan on Saturday March 21, 2020 to immediately visit a coronavirus treatment centre or contact the medical teams to be tested for coronavirus,” the Erbil health directorate said, according to NRT.
“Against all regulations, two families in Erbil held a funeral ceremony... that caused 32 people who attended the funeral to catch the coronavirus, which now makes up 35 percent of all the cases in Erbil,” the directorate added.
With funerals banned over coronavirus fears, the KRG's interior ministry on Monday said those who attended would be prosecuted, including those infected with the illness.
Idris Zeyad Rafaat, a final year medical student from Erbil, said it was deeply frustrating to see people ignoring government regulations.
“Doctors, nurses, hospital staff and security forces have all been working around the clock to save lives and have been asking people to stay at home and not to gather under any circumstances, as it will lead to the spread of the virus”, he told Middle East Eye.
“Some were from their own family and others were people coming to the funeral from different neighbourhoods, they have all become infected with the virus.”
The spike in the number of infections comes despite the imposition of a firm lockdown by the KRG.
Authorities imposed a 48-hour comprehensive curfew starting from 12pm on Saturday, with only on-duty health workers and security forces allowed to move freely.
Schools, universities, public gatherings and funerals have all been banned.
Despite this, on 5 April, Erbil’s police dispersed another funeral in Daratu district by force and imposed quarantine on the guests.
The KRG on Monday held a committee meeting via video-conference chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani.
The committee decided that the current 48-hour curfew would remain in place until midnight in order to reconsider the previous curfew order that bans travel throughout the Kurdish region until 10 April.
As part of the meeting, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani thanked the public and delivered a special thanks to "our heroes, medical teams, Peshmerga soldiers, law enforcement and media agencies who work tirelessly to save lives."
Official figures released by the central government in Baghdad said that Iraq had, as a whole, recorded 1,031 infections and 64 deaths, though this figure has been questioned in some circles.
Globally, coronavirus has infected over 1.3 million people and killed more than 72,000, according to data released by Johns Hopkins University.
Rafaat said that, despite the damage caused by incidents like the funeral, Iraqis would be able to pull through the crisis.
“Iraqis have faced many struggles, including the Islamic State," he said, referring to the militant group.
"Together hand in hand we can contain the outbreak. If we work all together, we can definitely overcome this virus."
Human rights activists have urged Gulf countries to free detained migrant workers to help contain the spread of coronavirus in the region.
Thousands of expatriate workers have been detained in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — for violating strict residency regulations, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Overcrowding is a serious and recurring problem in many of the Gulf states' prisons and detention centres, making it “virtually impossible” to put into effect basic measures to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak, the non-governmental organisation said.
“Many migrant workers in the Gulf, especially those who are undocumented through no fault of their own or have fled unscrupulous employers, are in prolonged pre-deportation detention in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions,” Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, said in a statement published on Tuesday.
“As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Gulf states should take prompt measures to protect the health and rights of detainees and staff in immigration detention centers, including by releasing people and finding alternatives to detention,” he added.
Almost half of the GCC population of 52 million are expatriates, most of whom come from South Asia, the Philippines or within the Arab world.
Many are brought to the region under a sponsorship system called kafala, which links the legal status of migrants to their employers throughout their stay in the country. The kafala system bans employees from switching jobs without the permission of their employers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.
As more countries close borders and impose travel restrictions due to the pandemic, Gulf governments should consider extending visas to ensure that migrant workers retain their legal residency at a time when they cannot travel home freely, HRW said.
Several GCC countries have taken steps to address the concerns over the welfare of migrants.
In March, Saudi Arabia released 250 foreign detainees held on non-violent immigration and residency offences, and the UAE promised to automatically issue and renew the work permits and residency visas of migrant workers without the need for medical exams.
Last week, Kuwait offered expat workers living illegally in the country a one-month amnesty to leave, with a free air ticket and without paying delay fines. Some 150,000 people are expected to benefit from the offer.
The country also announced that it would treat all Covid-19 patients, including non-Kuwaitis, who account for nearly 70 percent of the population, for free.
In a separate statement released on Monday, HRW and other rights groups called on Bahrain to release human rights and political activists imprisoned "solely for peacefully exercising their rights."
The coalition of 19 activist groups said the conditions in Bahrain's overcrowded prisons - as well as the lack of medical care - would compound the risk of Covid-19 spreading.
Last month, Bahrain freed 901 prisoners on "humanitarian grounds" and 585 others were given non-custodial sentences.
The GCC states have reported an uptick in coronavirus cases since 1 April, with Saudi Arabia being the worst hit with 41 deaths.
So far, the oil-rich federation has reported a total of around 8,400 coronavirus cases and 60 deaths. A majority of the cases in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among foreigners.
Globally, coronavirus has infected over 1.3 million people and killed more than 72,000, according to data released by Johns Hopkins University.
Maram Abdulaziz, a Saudi actor, has come under a barrage of criticism after stating online that detainees should be used as "lab rats" to test coronavirus vaccines on.
The actor, who has over 20,000 followers on Twitter, took to the social media platform to make the suggestion.
“If the matter was in my hands, everyone who has been arrested, particularly in cases that impact security, I would not imprison them but rather deprive them of food, drink and rehabilitation," she said in a tweet that she later deleted.
“I would make them the basis of testing and experiments for new medicines even if the outcome was not guaranteed, as a punishment for them. We would also be able to benefit from them this way, we would rather test on them than on rats and monkeys who have never harmed us in any way.”
Social media users were quick to point that there are laws in place to deal with detainees the proper way and their punishment should be left to authorities.
السجين مهما كانت تهمته يُحاكم وفق القوانين المعمول بيها في البلد الي هو فيه ، وهو أمانة لدى السلطات والجهات الرسمية وليس فأر تجارب وانصحك بكثرة الأستغفار وصدقة السر والمسح على رؤوس الايتام فانها ترقق القلوب عافانا الله مما ابتلاك به واصلح حالك.— نصير الحُسيني (@alhussainie) April 7, 2020
Translation: A prisoner, whatever their charge, is tried according to the laws in force in the country they are in, and they are trusted to the authorities and officials. They are not lab rats and I advise you to repent for what you have said, seek forgiveness and give alms.”
لو كان الامر بيدي كان طبقت كلامك على حثالة الفن الهابط لان هم كمان مو مستفيدة منهم البلد 🚶♂️— راضي البلوي (@hzen9900) April 7, 2020
Translation: If matters were in my hands, I would have applied what you said to those in the cheap art industry, because they too are not benefiting us in any way.
Social media users pointed to the human rights concerns related to her suggestion and were grateful that she is not in charge of such matters.
أعوذ بالله هذا الذي تفكرين فيه جريمة إنسانية وحقوق الإنسان تجرم فاعله وتلاحقه ولا يفعله الإ المنظمات المجرمة التي تتاجر بالبشر— طيف☕ (@rafaf_kkk) April 7, 2020
الحمدالله أنه ليس لك من الأمر شيء
المسلم في الإسلام إذا ارتكب خطأ يعاقب بقدر جرمه..
والعقاب في الشريعة تطهير وربما بعده عودته للحق
Translation: I seek refuge in God from this kind of thinking which is a crime against humanity and a crime against human rights...Thank God that matters are not in her hands…”
After the onslaught of criticism online, the actress took to Twitter to address her tweet in a two-minute video, which has since been deleted from her account.
In the video, the actress claims that detainees would be better put to use as subjects for testing, rather than being imprisoned for a number of years.
“This would all be done with their consent, they would have to sign as a volunteer, this would benefit the country and reduce their time behind bars. Where’s the problem?” Abdulaziz said.
“Why should we not take advantage of these people in prisons? It would be with their consent. They would either get something in return financially or less time in prison, etc. For those criticising me from a humanitarian perspective, I’m not saying execute them, I am saying benefit from them by using them."
In a follow-up tweet, the actress responds to the criticism by further justifying her comments.
“For those who keep asking me why I don’t put myself forward for medical testing, firstly, I have put myself forward as a cell donor and all of my organs after death. As for clinical trials, that requires people who are recovering, which does not apply to me! I am not one of those who don’t do as they preach.”
Around the Middle East, there have been a growing number of calls for prisoners to be released from cramped prison conditions amidst the Covid-19 outbreak.
In Saudi Arabia, activists have used social media to highlight the detention of political activists, citing fears of the spread of the coronavirus in unsanitary conditions behind bars.
The kingdom has recorded 2,752 coronavirus cases and 38 deaths.
Saudi Arabia has extended a coronavirus curfew to 24 hours in four governorates and five cities as the number of confirmed deaths from the pandemic in the kingdom rose to 38.
The interior ministry said on Monday it had imposed round-the-clock lockdowns on the capital Riyadh as well as Tabuk, Dammam, Dhahran.
The same measures were also imposed on the governorates of Jeddah, Taif, Qatif and Khoba, the ministry said in a Twitter statement.
The statement said the curfews would last "until further notice".
Authorities had already sealed off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina along with Riyadh and Jeddah, barring people from entering and exiting as well as prohibiting movement between all provinces.
Saudi Arabia, which has reported the highest number of infections in the Gulf, is scrambling to limit the spread of the disease at home.
On Monday, the health ministry said deaths from the respiratory illness had risen to 38, while confirmed current infections rose to 2,523 and 551 people had recovered from the illness.
Last month, Saudi Arabia suspended the year-round Umrah pilgrimage over fears of the coronavirus pandemic spreading to Islam's holiest cities.
Authorities are yet to announce whether they will proceed with this year's Hajj, scheduled for the end of July. Authorities last week urged Muslims to temporarily defer preparations for the annual pilgrimage.
Last year, some 2.5 million faithful travelled to Saudi Arabia from across the world to take part in the Hajj, which all Muslims must perform at least once in their lives if able.
The Arab world's biggest economy has also closed down cinemas, malls and restaurants and halted flights as it steps up efforts to contain the virus.
King Salman has warned of a "more difficult" fight ahead against the virus, as the kingdom faces the economic double blow of virus-led shutdowns and crashing oil prices.
More than 20,000 Pakistani nationals stuck in the United Arab Emirates have requested permission to fly home despite a suspension of most passenger flights out of the country due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The requests were registered with the Pakistani consulate between 3 and 6 April, a consulate spokesman told Reuters on Monday.
Pakistani authorities have said they are in talks with their UAE counterparts to try to arrange flights so that the Pakistanis could return home soon, the spokesman said.
Still, hundreds of Pakistanis gathered outside the consulate on Sunday demanding to be sent home despite the emirate-wide lockdown, Dubai’s Gulf News newspaper reported on Monday.
The consulate spokesman disputed the figure and said police had dispersed the group as they were in breach of the lockdown.
The UAE suspended all passenger flights last month, but both Emirates and Etihad airlines were issued approvals on Thursday for limited flights to repatriate stranded foreigners.
The airlines said they were resuming some outbound-only services to limited destinations for those wishing to leave the UAE, but neither airline has announced flights to Pakistan.
Like in many countries, much of the UAE's workforce has been on lockdown as a result of measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus that is officially known as Covid-19. But these measures have left many foreign workers stranded without income.
Pakistan is a big labour supplier to the UAE, with more than a million Pakistanis living and working in the country.
Those who have registered for flights home include some whose visas had expired, who had lost their jobs or had stopped being paid by their employers, the spokesman said.
The UAE has gradually increased restrictions in the country, including imposing a nationwide curfew, suspending passenger flights and putting Dubai in a lockdown.
A densely populated Dubai neighbourhood where many South Asian blue-collar workers live has been sealed off since 31 March, and there has been door-to-door coronavirus testing in some parts of the emirate.
On Monday, the UAE reported 277 new coronavirus cases, its biggest daily jump, and one new death. In total it has recorded 2,076 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rival Benny Gantz have reached an agreement to annex parts of the West Bank, paving the way for a unity government after months of a stalemate that resulted from three non-conclusive elections.
After a meeting on Monday, the Israeli leaders agreed on a plan to start a formal process this summer to claim sections of the occupied Palestinian territory as part of Israel, Haaretz reported.
The scheme would be presented to the government if Washington agrees to it, the Israeli newspaper said. After the cabinet passes it, the plan would require the approval of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The United States has already expressed openness to annexing Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank.
In January, President Donald Trump unveiled his so-called "Deal of the Century" for the conflict, which would allow Israel to annex large areas of the West Bank in exchange for recognising a disjointed Palestinian state with no control over its borders or airspace.
Palestinians have overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
'Under international law, it is clear as daylight that annexation is illegal. It is not something that's open to interpretation'
- Jonathan Kuttab, human rights lawyer
After three elections that did not produce a clear winner, Gantz and Netanyahu are in talks to form a unity government following the latest vote on 3 March.
After initial signs of a deal that would end the impasse, Gantz's Blue and White said talks hit a roadblock over judicial nominations.
"After reaching an agreement on all the issues, the Likud asked to reopen the issue of the Judicial Selection Committee," the party said in a statement.
"After this, the negotiations ended, we will not allow any change in the role of the Judicial Selection Committee or harm to democracy."
International law experts say annexing Palestinian territories would be illegal.
Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and the Syrian Golan Heights a year later. But the international community, including Washington, did not recognise Israel's hold over these areas as legal. But Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel late in 2017, and last year, he recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab told MEE earlier this year after Trump announced the plan for the conflict that the prohibition of the acquisition of territory by force has been a core principle of international law.
Since World War II, there have been three cases of annexation attempt: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990; Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014; and Israel's acquisition of Arab territories since 1967.
"For 70 years, the entire international order has been built on the principle that you cannot acquire someone else's land by force and annex it," Kuttab said.
"Until the Israelis came and said, 'We can do it'. Nobody agreed with them until Trump came."
He added that Washington's recognition of the Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights set a "dangerous" precedent that went largely without pushback from Arab countries.
"Under international law, it is clear as daylight that annexation is illegal. It is not something that's open to interpretation."
Turkey will build two temporary hospitals in Istanbul to accomodate 1,000 coronavirus patients each, as the number of confirmed infections jumped by more than 3,000 on Monday to a total of 30,217.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that plans were underway to build a temporary hospital at Istanbul's abandoned Ataturk Airport within the next 45 days, and a "seperate hospital near Sancaktepe Airport [also in Istanbul] to host the same number of patients."
Officials last week said that 60 percent of all coronavirus cases were in Istanbul, Turkey's cultural and economic heartland.
In his televised speech, Erdogan also said that a ban had been imposed on the sale of medical masks with the government subsidising the cost and distributing them for free to every citizen.
"The masks distributed in grocery stores are free of charge," he said. "We have enough stocks and production planned for our citizens until the pandemic ends. We are determined to deliver free masks to our citizens."
Meanwhile, Turkish health minister Fahrettin Koca said that 75 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number to deaths to 649.
He wrote on Twitter that 3,148 people had tested positive, bringing the total number of cases to 30,217.
The government was also able to increase the number of daily tests and checked 21,400 citizens, the minister said, with some 284 people also discharged from hospitals.
"Our daily test numbers will soon reach 30,000," Koca said. "The rise of increase in recovered patient numbers continues. Compared to the increased test numbers, the increase in the number of new cases are low."
Since the virus reached Turkey, the government has unleashed an array of measures aimed at curbing its spread, including closing down schools, universities, cafes, congregational prayers, indefinitely postponing sporting events and suspending flights to many countries.
Last week, Erdogan had extended a mandatory confinement order for everyone under the age of 20 starting from midnight, but has stopped short of declaring a complete lockdown.
The government has previously imposed a curfew on senior citizens above the age of 65.
Yisrael Black served in an elite military unit, works in tech and is a witty guy - all the credentials common to the privileged in Israeli society.
Meanwhile, he also wears a black kippah (skullcap) and is an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, also known as Haredi. This week his world was turned upside down, as he began to feel the effects of a current in Israeli society blaming Haredi communities for the spread of coronavirus.
“I went to the supermarket in a secular neighbourhood,” Black told Middle East Eye, describing his humiliation at the door as another shopper told him to stay extra distant because he was identifiably Ultra-Orthodox.
'Who would have thought that in 2020 in Israel I would need to hide my kippah?'
- Yisrael Black, Haredi Israeli
“So inside the supermarket I did my shopping with a hood over my head. Who would have thought that in 2020 in Israel I would need to hide my kippah?” he added sadly.
Shimon Librati, a Haredi from the majority Ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, has a similar tale. “Listen to this nightmare of a story,” he tells MEE.
“My elderly mother-in-law suffered a medical complication and needed to go to the hospital. Apparently there is a new regulation that says that any Bnei Brak resident must be segregated from other patients.”
Librati’s mother-in-law was put in a ward with coronavirus patients, despite displaying none of the symptoms.
“She pleaded with them. The previous day she had undergone a treatment that suppresses her immune system. If she catches the virus it could mean her life. They paid no attention,” he says.
These are relatively common examples of the scapegoating that Haredi Israelis are now facing, Many others are far more serious.
Israel has 8,611 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 56 deaths. In Jerusalem, around half of those infected come from the Ultra-Orthodox minority.
Official decisions and a media discourse painting Haredi communities as coronavirus incubators have stoked an atmosphere where suspicions that all Ultra-Orthodox Jews carry the virus are now widespread.
The unprecedented decision to impose a total lockdown on Bnei Brak, the largest Haredi city with a population of 210,000, has helped encourage numerous popular memes depicting the Ultra-Orthodox spreading Covid-19.
Meanwhile, major hospitals in the centre of the country have instructed staff to promptly segregate every Haredi woman giving birth and treat her as a confirmed coronavirus patient. These mothers will subsequently have their babies under inferior conditions and be separated from their newborns immediately afterwards.
The government is now discussing whether to place other Haredi neighbourhoods and communities under lockdown as well.
This hostility towards the Haredi community has a particular root.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus in Israel last month, the Haredi leadership has made every conceivable mistake in its response.
First they discounted precautionary warnings, ignoring the danger and urging the Ultra-Orthodox community to uphold a normal routine. Notably, supreme Haredi religious authority Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered the continuation of regular Torah study for adult yeshiva students and children in heder (elementary school), citing the ancient principle that the holy text provides the ultimate protection and rescue.
Coincidentally, Israel’s current health minister, Yaakov Litzman, is also the leader of the Haredi political party United Torah Judaism.
His failure to address the looming danger and his attempts to exempt synagogues from the prohibition on mass gatherings demonstrate more than anything else the failure of Haredi political leadership in this crisis.
The results are grim. Haredi towns have become pandemic hotspots, with higher incidence of the illness both in absolute terms and proportionally to their population.
Only when people in Haredi enclaves began dying of the virus did the leadership wake up - by which time, it was far too late.
With these missteps and outbreaks, the reasoned discourse so imperative at this time has now been layered with some very harsh generalisations, providing broad cover for people whose opinion of the Haredi minority has always been negative.
For Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox, the day after coronavirus is a prospect no less frightening than the illness itself. They fear they are liable to find themselves discriminated against, humiliated and ostracised en masse.
The average Israeli finds it difficult in any case to understand the complexities of Haredi life, and thus has little basis to comprehend the grave fracture represented by the current situation.
This new epidemic is on a collision course with every basic aspect of daily life for Haredim: gathering together, public prayer, and the perpetual embrace of extended family and friends.
Take your typical Bnei Brak family: father, mother and nine children live in what began as a three-room apartment that gradually expanded with legally dubious, patched-together renovations. The balcony was enclosed; the original three rooms became five plasterboard-walled cubicles.
Everyone living there is completely disconnected from the internet. This family is not culturally constructed to be at home. Normally the children are always at school, the young adults are at their yeshiva. Other than that, their connection to the outside world is via major family occasions, regular ritual bathing at the mikveh, and (for men) gathering three times a day at the centre of daily life: the synagogue.
In that context, keeping children occupied at home, in such a home, for weeks at a time without Netflix or computer games is a herculean task. Similarly keeping a family clothed and fed is increasingly tricky while trying to shop for necessities when movement is restricted.
Last Friday night MEE took a car ride through Bnei Brak. The sun was setting and a veil of sadness seemed to stretch across the sky.
Normally a bustling city - its streets crowded with small children looking sweet in their Shabbat best, girls in long skirts and braided hair, men in their distinctive fur-trimmed hats racing between the mikveh and the synagogue - Bnei Brak looked like a ghost town. The streets were utterly deserted. From every cramped balcony, children peered out through the grating, seeking a breath of fresh air.
In some of the densely crowded neighbourhoods, the Haredi version of the new international phenomenon of balcony singing was evident. From giant speakers came Shabbat melodies, some of them sung and played live by wedding singers and musicians trying to bring some cheer to their despondent neighbours.
Masses of people joined in the singing, soon to blend with the benign sound of Friday night horns that signal the official start of Shabbat.
On Wednesday the big night will arrive: Passover Eve.
Pre-holiday preparations involve a days-long festival of cleansing the home of any trace of hametz (crumbs of anything not kosher for Passover), buying new clothes and gifts, and, especially, the continual purchase of foodstuffs. To avoid any inadvertent consumption of hametz, families organise an enormous supply of appropriate food that will last the family for the entire holiday week.
In this city of crowding and poverty, where, even in ordinary times, life is lived hand to mouth, the Passover pantry is built on organised, discounted sales.
There is also a tradition of kimcha defischa (Aramaic for “the flour of Passover”), upheld by wealthy Jews all over the world who make charitable donations that underwrite people’s groceries for the holidays.
Every street corner in Haredi towns sprout a distribution kiosk with mountains of vegetables, meat and fish, and matzah, among other produce. A steady stream of residents appears to collect food for their families.
This year the city is silent, under siege, no one coming or going. Checkpoints are placed across its streets, soldiers and police are on patrol. All activity is snuffed out.
The government has succeeded in creating a hermetically sealed closure on Bnei Brak, but has apparently given no serious thought to alternative solutions for its residents. No donations are arriving from wealthy Jews worldwide, the big box stores in nearby suburbs are inaccessible, and the fear is enormous.
It seems like nearly every household has someone ill with the coronavirus, or at least one person with symptoms.
Over 1,300 people have been tested positive in the city, but the true number of cases is likely far higher. Some refuse testing for fear of being forcibly separated from their children on Passover Eve. No provisions have been made by authorities for children left behind by parents forced to isolate.
At my parents’ Passover seder, almost every year there were new generations of children and grandchildren celebrating together. This year, my parents are alone.
Most Haredi families will observe Passover alone, too - with the ground crumbling underfoot. The extended family connection, the bedrock of community and financial support, all are missing, and along with this human suffering comes a new sense of persecution.
The folks in the surrounding neighbourhoods, watching Netflix and congregating on Zoom, see their Haredi neighbours as responsible for all the evil in the world now: Go away, lepers! We don’t want to hear you chanting on Passover Eve, "Why is this night different?"
This night is really, really different, isn’t it? And how.
Cairo has been in touch with Hamas and Israel in an effort to avoid any escalations that might lead to a new military confrontation on its border, well-informed private sources were quoted as saying by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
Egypt’s move came after Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar warned Israel against hindering Gaza’s access to essential goods and ventilators if the need arose in the fight against the spread of coronavirus in the besieged strip.
The sources said the communications led by the Egyptian General Intelligence Service discussed Sinwar’s statements and the status of the current truce between the two sides.
Egypt last week sent consignments of preventive medical aid and foodstuffs to the Gaza Strip to help it confront the coronavirus pandemic and to mitigate popular anger around harsh conditions caused by the stifling siege.
The sources said Egypt is working to prevent the outbreak of a battle or health crisis on its eastern border, as it struggles to contain the pandemic within Egypt.
Cairo has recorded 1,173 coronavirus cases and 78 deaths in the country.
The sources said Egyptian intelligence officials have reassured Hamas in regard to the supply of medicine, food and fuel to Gaza, stressing that the Rafah border crossing will fully operate to deliver the goods.
Egypt has refused to receive its nationals wishing to come back home from Qatar, after Doha organised a flight for the repatriation of Egyptian workers, an official source was quoted as saying by Al-Quds Al-Arabi.
“Authorities have allocated a plane to transport Egyptians but were surprised that the Egyptian authorities refused to receive them and did not provide any reasons” for the decision, the source said, without specifying the number of workers.
The London-based newspaper was unable to obtain any comments from authorities in Egypt, which, like the rest of the region, is battling the spread of the coronavirus.
“Some Egyptian brothers posted a video on social media expressing their desire to return to Egypt after their expired contracts were not renewed by the private companies they work for", the Qatari source, who asked not to be named, said.
He added that the initiative of organising a flight back to Egypt comes as a response to their demand and due to the coronavirus crisis that the world is dealing with.
The National Human Rights Committee in Doha said that on Sunday it requested that authorities communicate with their Egyptian counterparts to solve the problem of the 400 Egyptians stuck in Qatar and wishing to return to Egypt.
The party's president, Lotfi Mraihi, said that Kamal Al-Saidi was one of the most prominent figures in the party and that he died while under supervision in a hospital.
Mraihi had been accused by a number of Tunisian media personalities of hiding his infection with coronavirus. He was criticised for holding a party conference on 7 March and dealing with the media and political leaders from UPR without any precautions.
Separately, the Tunisian government has been trying to fast-track aid deliveries and assistance to poor areas out of fear of increasing social tensions and insecurity.
A number of Tunisian slums have seen nightly protests led by people affected by the pandemic and the lockdowns.
Arabic press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye.
Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates’ biggest carriers, have resumed limited passenger flights two weeks after the Gulf state halted all flights to and from the country in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The flights are open to foreign citizens who wish to leave the UAE, but no incoming passengers are allowed, according to AFP.
Foreign residents of the oil-rich nation are banned from re-entering until at least mid-April.
On Monday, the UAE reported 277 new coronavirus cases, its biggest daily jump, and one new death. In total, it has recorded 2,076 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths.
Last week, Dubai’s Emirates said it had obtained approvals to carry passengers on certain flights.
“Effective Monday 6 April, initial flights will commence from Dubai to London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels and Zurich, with 4 flights a week to London Heathrow, and 3 flights a week to the other cities,” said a statement published on Thursday by the airlines.
Emirates said it operated a flight to London late on Sunday and another to Frankfurt on Monday as part of its limited resumption.
Etihad, on the other hand, said that from 5 April it would be operating “a number of outbound flights to help foreign citizens return home from Abu Dhabi”.
“Repatriation flights will start with Seoul Incheon, followed by destinations such as Melbourne, Singapore, Manila, Jakarta and Amsterdam,” according to a travel alert posted on Etihad’s website.
The limited operation resumed on Sunday with a passenger flight to Seoul, Ethihad said.
The travel alert also listed the flights it plans to operate through 21 April, including six more to Seoul, five to Singapore, six to Manila and two to Jakarta.
On 23 March, the UAE announced that it would halt all passenger and transit flights to and from the country for two weeks. In addition, foreign airlines would no longer be allowed to land or transit through Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or any other airport in the UAE.
But the two carriers were issued approvals on Thursday for limited flights to repatriate stranded foreigners.
To combat the spread of the virus, the UAE has imposed a sweeping crackdown, including the flight ban and closure of borders, shopping malls, entertainment centres, and markets.
A 24-hour curfew was introduced on Thursday following a big jump in the number of cases in the UAE where some 10 million people live, with 90 percent of them being expatriates.
According to Reuters, more than 20,000 Pakistani workers stuck in the emirates are seeking to return home. Pakistan is a big labour supplier to the UAE, with more than a million Pakistanis living and working in the country, according to Pakistani diplomats.
Pakistani authorities were in talks with their UAE counterparts to try to arrange flights so that the Pakistanis could return home, a spokesman said.
Neither Emirates nor Etihad has announced flights to Pakistan.
On Saturday, the UK's Labour Party elected Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, as its leader.
Following on from the Iraq War opponent and pro-Palestine activist Jeremy Corbyn, how is Starmer likely to approach the Middle East, based on his previous actions and comments?
Middle East Eye takes a look.
As part of a series of pledges he made at the beginning of his leadership campaign, Starmer promised to bring forward a Prevention of Military Intervention Act that would "put human rights at the heart of foreign policy" and see an end to "illegal wars", by making both the legal case for military conflict and House of Commons approval a necessity before action is taken.
Starmer, like his predecessor, was an opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and joined protesters on street demonstrations. At the time, he was working as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, specialising in international human rights. He also published an article in the Guardian, spelling out why he viewed the case for war as untenable.
"If the attorney general's advice is that force can be used against Iraq without a further UN resolution, he must explain fully how the legal difficulties set out above are to be overcome," he wrote.
"Simply to argue that the interpretation of resolution 1441 accepted by all the other security council members except the US and the UK should be abandoned in favour of military action won't convince anybody. Flawed advice does not make the unlawful use of force lawful."
Considering the furore that the discussion over Israel, Palestine and antisemitism has caused in the Labour Party in the last five years, Starmer has been keen to try and neutralise the issue.
Starmer hesitated - unlike others - to describe himself as a Zionist during a Labour leadership hustings and later told Jewish News that the term meant "slightly different things to different people, and… to some extent it has been weaponised".
He also told the Jewish Chronicle, however, that “if the definition of ‘Zionist’ is someone who believes in the state of Israel, in that sense I’m a Zionist”.
Starmer is a member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East (LFPME), and supports a two-state solution to the conflict. He condemned US President Donald Trump's "deal of the century" plan for the region as "a farce" and as "inconsistent with international law and human rights protections."
He has appointed Lisa Nandy, chair of LFPME, as shadow foreign secretary. Nandy was criticised by pro-Israel groups for signing a series of pledges by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, including backing the right for Palestinians to return to homes from which they were expelled during the 1948 war, and an arms embargo on Israel.
When it comes to the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia - played out in proxy conflicts across the Middle East - Starmer has expressed a desire to end the isolation of Tehran, while he has continued to back the party's long-standing pledge to ban arms sales to Riyadh over the war in Yemen.
Following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by the US in January, Starmer condemned the attack and said the world needed to "engage, not isolate Iran" and warned that "all sides need to de-escalate tensions and prevent further conflict."
Both the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and the Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) issued 10-point plans for the Labour leadership candidates to follow, particularly focusing on the issues of antisemitism and Islamophobia. All candidates signed both lists of pledges.
The BoD welcomed Starmer's victory over the weekend and said the new leader "must act to rid the party of the awful disease of anti-Jewish racism."
The MCB has yet to issue a reaction.
Of all the devastating consequences the coronavirus outbreak has brought to Iran, the most painful may well be the lone burial, at which the deceased is not allowed even a final hug from their loved ones to say farewell.
The country has been struggling with the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 3,600 deaths reported.
Globally, as of Monday, the total confirmed cases of the coronavirus stands at almost 1.3 million, with deaths rising to over 70,000.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus has changed the way Iranians mourn the dead.
The coronavirus has taken away the one thing Iranians treasure the most at the end of life - to be surrounded by love
Under normal circumstances, ceremonies take place in a mosque or house and are attended by close and distant relatives alike. The mourners, usually 50 or more, pay their respects to the deceased and take part in the interment process and the next rites.
The most important task of the mourners is to offer emotional support to the family of the deceased and make sure that they are not left in solitude, which many believe deepens the pain of losing a loved one.
The coronavirus has taken away the one thing Iranians treasure the most at the end of life - being surrounded by the love of a large group of family and friends.
'There were other new graves in the cemetery, and like my son's, each was surrounded by only a few people'
- Mohsen Afrashteh
Reports of patients dying alone flood in from every corner of the world, all because of quarantine measures that prohibit contact in close proximity with the sick.
Only 12 people showed up for the burial of Reza Azizi’s friend, who had died of Covid-19.
“When they wanted to place him in the grave, we were told to keep a ten-metre distance from the grave as he had died of coronavirus,” Azizi told Middle East Eye.
“Two people in protection outfits buried him with lime while he was covered in a special type of plastic,” he added.
“We were also told by the cemetery not to bring flowers.”
Morteza Zarafshan described a similar experience at the funeral of his father, who died of Covid-19 three weeks ago.
“Three people from hospital, all wearing protective outfits, carried our father to his grave,” he told MEE, adding that the hospital advised that only two people should be present at the burial.
“We were told not to even get close to the grave, let alone hugging my dad for the last time,” Zarafshan said.
These days, the changes in internment rites apply to every death, not only limited to those who succumbed to the coronavirus.
Mohsen Afrashteh, 53, witnessed his son dying in the hospital two weeks ago from lung cancer. He was told to keep the number of attendees at the burial to a minimum.
“Only 12 or 13 people came to the cemetery to pay their condolences. We couldn’t even recite Fatiha near the grave of my son after he was laid to rest,” said Afrashteh, referring to the first chapter of the Quran.
“There were other new graves in the cemetery, and like my son's, each was surrounded by only a few people.”
Many Iranians, now living in isolation to help contain the spread of the virus, are mourning alone.
“I feel lonely, and this loneliness has caused me to suffer more after the death of my father,” said Zarafshan.
“It was intolerable,” he told MEE, adding that the lack of proper mourning ceremonies for his father had deepened his pain. Following his father’s funeral, Zarafshan put himself in quarantine and lost frequent contact with his sisters, who were also self-isolating.
For Afrashteh, losing his son was painful, but the fact that so few people had shown up to pay him respect saddened him deeply.
'I feel lonely, and this loneliness has caused me to suffer more after the death of my father'
- Morteza Zarafshan
He “understood and accepted” that it was the right thing to do in order to contain the virus and “care for other people’s health”. But, he said, "the loneliness we faced in the last few days, with no relatives coming to see us, compounded our suffering.”
In the absence of traditional rites, Iranians have come up with new ways to alleviate their agony in the face of death.
Reza Azizi, whose closest friend died a few weeks ago, mourned his loss alongside the deceased’s family - virtually.
We created a video of my friend with a tragic song playing on it, and sent it to everyone on Telegram,” Azizi explained, referring to the instant messaging service.
“We also made a poster, asking all the family members, relatives and all those we knew to recite the Quran and Fatiha at a certain hour."
The lack of funerals for coronavirus victims has created a “dangerous phenomenon” in Iranian society, claimed Mehdi Mohsenian-Rad, a distinguished communications professor in Iran.
In an interview with a local news site, Mohsenian-Rad explained that visiting a patient's relatives during hospitalisation and the funeral that follows death "represent an important and positive rite of passage for those grieving their deceased".
It is important, he wrote, not to let a "feeling of loneliness and unbridled isolation" take hold of someone in mourning.
At this present moment, the sociologist argued, "there is a vacuum that needs to be addressed. Because in all traditional and modern societies, and in all cultures in different parts of the world, there are communicative rituals and traditions that are known to help reduce the apprehension and pain in those who have suffered a loss.”
Close-knit networks of support are an indispensable part of life in Iran. But as Iranian society experiences “isolationism owing to the coronavirus”, it could also see a rise in suicides, warned Amanullah Gharai Moghaddam, a professor of sociology.
“Our society is emotional and eastern, and is intricately tied to our family and relatives. Therefore it is certain that those who have lost their loved ones are also enduring enormous pressure and sadness,” he told MEE.
Such social isolation could lead to more suicides, especially among those who are dealing with recent deaths in their circles, he said.
Gharai Moghaddam recommended using cultural activities to “increase hope in the society”, to prevent more loss of life.
“The TV channels should broadcast comedy shows and funny movies, which would encourage people to remember the sweeter side of life,” he said.
“We should also call our relatives and families to pay respect and express sympathy over their loss.”
There might, Gharai Moghaddam suggested, be a silver lining to this horrible crisis.
As grief spreads across Iran, the shared suffering could serve as a boost to people’s morale, because mourners would realise that they are not alone in this experience, and therefore feel less lonely.
Lebanese banks are to apply an exchange rate of 2,600 pounds per dollar for withdrawals from small accounts of up to five million Lebanese pounds ($3,300), a central bank source said on Monday, in the implementation of a new circular issued on Friday.
Lebanon is still applying an official peg of 1,507.5 pounds to the dollar for bank transactions and critical imports, the governor said on Friday.
The circular issued on Friday said deposits of $3,000 or less could be withdrawn in Lebanese pounds at a "market" rate, allowing small depositors to cash out despite tight banking controls.
It also allowed for the paying out of deposits of five million Lebanese pounds ($3,300) or less.
A senior banking source told Reuters the new rate would be fixed on a weekly basis and had this week been fixed at the 2,600 rate.
Last month, Lebanon declared it could no longer pay its hefty foreign debt and launched talks with creditors.
The currency has slumped since October, after capital inflows dried up and protests erupted against the ruling elite.
Authorities sought in recent weeks to enforce a rate of 2,000 pounds per dollar on the parallel market, now people's main source of cash. However, traders still sold dollars at higher rates, with some shutting down.
Rockets landed near a district that houses foreign workers in Iraq's oil industry early on Monday, but caused no damage or casualties, oil, military and police sources have said.
In a statement, the Iraqi military said the rockets were targeting the site of US oil service company Halliburton, in the Burjesia area of Basra province.
The police said that three Katyusha rockets were launched at 3am local time on Monday.
A launcher and 11 unfired rockets were found nearby and dismantled by security forces.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack and police said they had deployed additional forces to search the area.
An Iraqi employee working with Halliburton said the rockets fell far from the site, Reuters reported.
The district houses foreign oil workers and offices of both foreign and Iraqi oil companies, but has been largely empty in recent weeks after nearly all foreign personnel were evacuated because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Two officials with state-run Basra Oil, which oversees oil operation in the south, said the attack had not affected production and export operations.
Iran-backed militia groups have in recent months been regularly shelling bases in Iraq that host US forces and the area around the US embassy in Baghdad.
The US has withdrawn its forces from several bases in the country in recent weeks.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in Iran have reached 60,500, as the foreign ministry said Tehran will never ask the United States for help in the fight against the global pandemic.
Speaking on state TV on Monday, health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said the death toll from the virus was now 3,739.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has rejected offers from Washington for humanitarian assistance for Iran, the country so far worst-affected by the coronavirus in the Middle East.
"Iran has never asked and will not ask America to help Tehran in its fight against the outbreak... But America should lift all its illegal unilateral sanctions on Iran," foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in a televised news conference.
The United States is currently struggling to contain its own outbreak, with 336,851 confirmed cases, more than 9,600 deaths and several cities under lockdown.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the US could become the new epicentre of the pandemic due to the “very large acceleration” in infections there.
Tensions between Iran and the US have been running high since 2018, when US President Donald Trump quit a 2015 agreement that lifted sanctions on Iran in return for curbs to its nuclear programme.
Washington reimposed sanctions, which have crippled the Iranian economy.
Iranian authorities say those sanctions have hampered their efforts to curb the outbreak, urging other countries and the United Nations to call on the US to lift them.
"They [the US] are trying to force Tehran to accept negotiations with America," Mousavi said.
Trump says the nuclear deal was not strong enough and that he wants to apply "maximum pressure" on Iran to accept tougher curbs to its nuclear programme, halt its ballistic missile work and end its support for proxy forces in the Middle East.
Iran has long said it will not negotiate unless Washington lifts the sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Sunday that "low-risk" activities will begin on Saturday in most areas of the country and follow in the capital Tehran a week later.
The president did not spell out what he meant by such activities, but said the suspension of "high-risk activities" - schools, universities and various social, cultural, sports and religious events - would be extended to 18 April.
As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip on the world, Palestinians in Gaza have demonstrated once again that necessity is the mother of invention.
The coronavirus has not spared the blockaded strip, as the Gaza Ministry of Health stated that as of 27 March, at least 13 people had officially tested positive for it. Six of those have since recovered.
All the confirmed cases had been travelling outside of Gaza and have been placed in quarantine by the health ministry in a centre near the border with Egypt, along with other suspected cases.
But while residents of Gaza have been particularly fearful of the potential effects of Covid-19 in an area already deeply strained by the effects of nearly 13 years of siege, a spirit of helpfulness and solidarity has gripped the Palestinian territory - as a number of individuals have launched initiatives to help Gaza and neighbouring areas through the pandemic.
Essam Khalaf and Ismail Sekhela are two engineering professors at the Islamic University of Gaza. Since late March, they have been working on producing alternative ventilators to complement the 56 currently present in Gaza's hospitals, which are having to serve a population of at least 2 million.
Taking into consideration the lack of material in Gaza due to stringent Israeli restrictions on imports, Khalaf and Sekhela have had to make do with available tools like sensors, air filters and fuses to build makeshift ventilators costing between $150 and $200 - compared to regular hospital ventilators, which can fetch anywhere between $5,000 and $50,000.
“The device pumps the air to the lungs regularly with the possibility of controlling the amount of air,” Sekhela explained to Middle East Eye.
He added that the device had been created to address the current situation amid fears that the Strip is ill equipped to handle a significant outbreak of coronavirus among its residents.
The two engineers told MEE that if they were given the means, they hoped to build 100 devices within 10 days. They added that they had already offered their device to the prominent al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where doctors had approved the makeshift ventilators and given feedback to improve them.
“This device will ease the pressure on hospitals due to the lack of ventilators in Gaza,” Sekhela said. “It is a flexible device built taking into account Gaza’s circumstances under the siege, like power cuts, so it works on AC and DC power systems.”
Rami Rohmi, a spokesperson of the Islamic University, told MEE that the device had yet to be used on patients.
“There is one copy and the health ministry has made some notes on it,” he said. “The university took these notes and ordered a team alongside the two engineers to build more devices for further examination.”
Rohmi estimated that more conclusive results on the effectiveness of the ventilators would appear in the coming week, while highlighting that the makeshift units had only limited functions compared to the original ventilators.
“The university is working on 100 devices funded by a businessman in Gaza but we can’t yet release the device until we make sure of its effectiveness,” Rohmi said. “The hundred will go to the health ministry for examination and only then can we use them if there is a coronavirus outbreak.”
Bashar al-Bawab, the owner of a sewing factory in Gaza, has switched all production to making medical supplies and protective outfits.
“We realise that the Palestinian market, especially in Gaza, lacks medical supplies. Face masks and hazmat suits could not easily be found or imported to Gaza due to the restrictions at crossings,” he said.
“We started at first by providing doctors and nurses in Gaza hospitals with protective costumes, then we kept producing in order to export to the West Bank and Israel,” Bawab added.
The factory produces more than 10,000 face masks daily - half of which it exports to Israel, Bawab said. The factory owner added that, thanks to a solid international network of relationships, he had also begun exporting laboratory coats to Europe.
The factory has been working amid challenging conditions - including 18 hours of electricity cuts per day.
Bawab said his efforts to contribute to fighting the coronavirus were hindered by the Israeli-led blockade.
“As we export our products to Israel to help humans amid these hard times of global pandemic, we fear losing access to raw materials that Israel bars from entering Gaza,” he explained.
“In these conditions, we all have to treat each other with humanity,” Bawab said.
“All humans around the world are facing the same challenges now, with different ways of dealing with them. Here in Gaza, we do what we can as businessmen and traders for our people, helping the world with our limited means.”
Yemen's warring factions have accused each other of attacking an oil pipeline pumping station in the central province of Marib, where clashes have raged for weeks and displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
The oil ministry of the Saudi-backed and western-backed government said on Sunday that Houthi rebels had targeted the Kofel pumping station, according to the Saudi state news agency.
However Hussein al-Ezzi, an official in the Houthi-controlled government based in the capital Sanaa said Saudi-led coalition forces had attacked the station in what he described as a dangerous escalation.
Neither side gave details of the reported attack, which both said took place on Saturday.
The pipeline is operated by the Yemeni government-owned Safer oil company but no oil has been pumped through it for years.
Yemen's oil output has collapsed since 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in the war to try to restore the government of Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power after it was ousted by Houthi forces in Sanaa.
The United Nations hopes the threat posed by the global coronavirus pandemic will push Yemen's combatants into fresh talks to end a largely stalemated war that has left millions vulnerable to disease and starvation.
Meanwhile, in Taiz, at least five women were killed and 28 people injured when shelling hit the woman's section of the central city's main prison on Sunday, local officials and medical sources told Reuters.
The shelling came from the part of the divided city controlled by the Houthis, they said.
Taiz, Yemen's third-biggest city, is considered a front line in the conflict.
A UN-mediated deal reached in Stockholm in December 2018 aimed to set up a committee to establish humanitarian corridors to the city, but little progress has been made so far.
The United Arab Emirates will reinforce its stockpile of strategic goods and waive residency visa fines for the rest of the year in response to the coronavirus outbreak, its vice president said on Sunday.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is also the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai, the region's tourism and business hub, did not say what goods were included in the stockpile or give further details on the visa fine waiver.
Tweeting after a cabinet meeting, he also said authorities had directed factories to support the health sector's needs in the country, Reuters reported.
Dubai imposed a two-week lockdown on Saturday night, tightening an overnight curfew that the whole of the UAE has been under for 10 days. Reported daily new cases in the UAE have increased recently as testing has been stepped up.
On Sunday, UAE officially had 1,799 cases of the virus and 10 deaths, with 144 people having recovered, according to the Worldometer website.
The UAE central bank also announced new measures on Sunday to guarantee liquidity in the banking system, boosting its stimulus package to a total of $70bn from a previously announced $27bn.
Elsewhere, the UAE's embassy in the United Kingdom announced two charter flights this week to return more than 80 Emiratis home.
It also said an Emirates Airline plane had flown 345 British citizens back to the UK, after they were unable to return home following the closure of UAE airports to international traffic.
Kuwait supports Saudi Arabia's call to renew talks on cutting oil production due later this week and hopes for a successful outcome to stabilise the oil market, Kuwait's oil minister said on Sunday.
Opec and allies led by Russia, a group known as Opec+, are due to hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss a new pact on curbing output and ending a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that has prompted US President Donald Trump to weigh in. The meeting had been set for Monday, but was postponed.
"We totally support Saudi Arabia... and its current efforts in bringing Opec and non-Opec countries back to the table," Khaled al-Fadhel told Reuters by telephone.
Brent oil futures on 30 March fell to an almost 18-year low and remain down more than 50 percent from January levels amid low demand caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia as they vie for market share amid increased production.
On Monday, oil prices fell sharply after the meeting to discuss output cuts was delayed from Monday to Thursday, dimming hopes of swift action to support coronavirus-ravaged energy markets, AFP said. US benchmark West Texas Intermediate was down 7.8 percent at the open in Asia, trading at $26.11 per barrel. International benchmark Brent fell 6.2 percent to trade at $31.98 per barrel.
Russia wants constructive talks on the situation in the oil market and sees no alternative to dialogue, the Interfax news agency cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Sunday.
Opec+ members are debating a global production pact to cut 10 million barrels per day (bpd) or about 10 percent of total supply, an Opec source told Reuters on Friday.
A cut that size would be unprecedented and would require a widening of Opec+ to bring in other major players, including the United States, according to OPEC sources and analysts.
Still, Trump said on Saturday that he would impose tariffs on crude imports if he has to "protect" US energy workers from the oil price crash that has been exacerbated by the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia over market share.
"If I have to do tariffs on oil coming from outside or if I have to do something to protect our ... tens of thousands of energy workers and our great companies that produce all these jobs, I'll do whatever I have to do," Trump told reporters during a briefing about the coronavirus outbreak.
Russia and Saudi Arabia want the US to join in the talks, but Trump has so far shown little willingness to do so.
Unidentified diplomats told Bloomberg News that Saudi Arabia, Russia and other big producers that are racing to negotiate a deal had made some progress on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia and Russia both say they want the US, which has become the world’s biggest producer thanks to the shale revolution, to join the cuts, but Trump had only hostile words for Opec on Saturday when he threatened tariffs on foreign oil.
“I've been against Opec my whole life,” Trump said, adding that he believed Saudi Arabia and Russia would end their price war soon, according to the Financial Times. “I think they're going to settle because they'll be destroying themselves if they don't.”
The US is not part of Opec+, and the idea of Washington curbing production has long been seen as impossible, not least because of US antitrust laws.
“If the Americans don’t take part, the problem that existed before for the Russians and Saudis will remain - that they cut output while the US ramps it up, and that makes the whole thing impossible,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, a research group that advises the Kremlin.
Saudi Aramco will delay the release of its May crude official selling prices until 10 April to wait for the outcome of the Opec+ meeting, a senior Saudi source familiar with the matter said on Sunday.
Al-Fadhel said Kuwait would also delay the release of its May crude pricing until after the talks.
Kuwait will commit to the outcome of the Opec+ meeting and adjust its production and export plans according to any agreement that is reached, al-Fadhel said.
Turkey on Sunday said working youth, including seasonal agricultural labour, will be exempted from a confinement order imposed as part of tougher measures against the coronavirus pandemic.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday issued a mandatory confinement order, or curfew, for everyone aged under 20, in the latest series of measures taken nationwide.
A stay-at-home order was already in place for those over the age of 65 who are deemed the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. But because many youths were not adhering to the order, the government extended it to those under the age of 20 as well.
Only essential trips outside of the home for the purchase of food or medicine are allowed, Erdogan said.
Public and private sector employees, as well as seasonal agricultural workers aged between 18 and 20, will now be exempted, the interior ministry said in a circular, according to AFP.
The country's death toll from the coronavirus, known officially as Covid-19, reached 574 after 73 more people lost their lives over the last 24 hours, according to figures published by Health Minister Fahrettin Koca on Sunday.
The total number of confirmed cases rose to 27,069 while the country performed more than 20,000 tests on Sunday.
"Let's stay home. I thank young people who set a model for everyone with their behaviour under the new practice," Koca tweeted.
Turkish authorities have closed schools, suspended international flights and banned mass prayers and gatherings to stem the spread of the virus in the country of 83 million.
Medical staff imprisoned in Egypt have offered to work in their country's hospitals for the duration of the emergency brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter smuggled out of an Egyptian prison on Sunday.
Middle East Eye was able to confirm the authenticity of the letter, in which the imprisoned medical personnel also said they would return to their cells afterward.
In the letter, members of the Doctors Syndicate and supporting staff ask “to help our fellow doctors in their work, and we pledge not to demand any material compensation for this work, as well as not to go to our homes; but we will reside in hospitals and in other workplaces or the headquarters of subsidiary unions”.
They add: “We also pledge to return to our places in prisons again after this cloud has passed, and we are ready to provide adequate guarantees to implement this, for the sake of our dear Egypt and its great people.”
Batel, an independent Egyptian campaign, last week called for the release of more than 1,000 imprisoned doctors and healthcare professionals to help in the country's fight against the spread of the coronavirus.
The Batel campaign, which means "void" in Arabic, issued a statement on Wednesday saying that any potential help to the Egyptian health sector in the fight against the viral outbreak must be sought.
"Egypt cannot be suffering from a shortage of medical personnel, while there are more than 1,000 doctors and health-care workers in prisons," the campaign said in the statement.
It also posted the names of more than 100 doctors who had been arrested by Egyptian authorities. Batel estimates there are 300 doctors and as many as 1,000 nurses, pharmacists and other trained staff in Egypt’s jails.
Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power from the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, his government has jailed more than 60,00 alleged dissidents.
On Friday, the UN human rights chief called on Egypt to release political prisoners and other non-violent offenders in an effort to combat the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities.
Michelle Bachelet's spokesman, Rupert Colville, said in a statement that the world body was deeply concerned for Egypt's prisoners, who are often kept in conditions that are "overcrowded, unsanitary and suffer from a lack of resources".
The UN office also said it was "concerned" about reports that Egypt was moving to "quash criticism on social media" and silence activists focusing on the pandemic.
Egypt on Saturday confirmed five additional deaths and 85 new coronavirus cases, bringing the country’s number of confirmed total cases so far to 1,070. Seventy-one people have died from the virus in Egypt, according to the Egypt Independent website.
But the actual numbers may be higher. MEE reported last month that University of Toronto research suggests the government had been under-reporting cases of the virus and that the true number was probably about 6,000, and potentially as many as 19,000.
The authors of the smuggled letter wished all medical personnel success in the fight against the pandemic and concluded: “May God protect our beloved Egypt from the epidemic and from all evil.”
Mahmoud Jibril, the former leader of the opposition Libyan government during the civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi after 4o years of rule, has died in Cairo after being hospitalised with the coronavirus.
Jibril's death at a hospital in the Egyptian capital was confirmed by his party, the Alliance of National Forces, on Sunday.
The 67-year-old had been quarantined at a hospital in the city since late last month.
Jibril had been interim prime minister for about seven months in 2011 and resigned after Gaddafi was captured and killed in the city of Sirte.
In 2012, Jibril became a member of the newly founded political union of National Forces Alliance (NFA).
On 14 March 2012, he was elected leader of the alliance and represented his party in the General National Congress election. In national elections on 7 September 2012, the NFA won the most seats.
Jibril ran for a second term as prime minister, winning the first round of voting with 86 votes, far more than the 55 votes obtained by his primary opponent, Mustafa Abushagur.
However, in the second round of voting, Abushagur defeated Jibril.
Jibril had once been touted as a key force in Libyan politics and a potential president, but the country remained riven by conflict after 2011.
It is now split between an internationally recognised government in Tripoli and rival forces led by the eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Jibril was supported by several international actors and had negotiated between the US and Gaddafi's government even before the Libyan uprising, according to documents leaked by WikiLeaks.
From 2007 to early 2011, he had served under Gaddafi as head of the National Planning Council of Libya and of the National Economic Development Board of Libya.