Thursday, March 26, 2020

03/26 Links Pt1: 3 more die from virus as Israel death toll reaches 8; number of cases hits 2,666; Netanyahu and Gantz said forming unity government; Blue and White collapses

From Ian:

3 more die from virus as Israel death toll reaches 8; number of cases hits 2,666
The number of Israelis who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic rose Thursday by three to a total of eight, with diagnosed cases rising by 171 to 2,666, the Health Ministry announced.

The sixth fatality was a 91-year-old woman with the coronavirus, Wolfson Medical Center in Holon said, adding that she had been in critical condition for many days, sedated and on a ventilator, and that staff had tried to save her life “with every means, night and day, with much dedication.”

“We share in the sorrow of the family members,” the hospital said.

It said her family members had been informed and that social workers were helping them.

The Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem said that one of the deceased was an 89-year-woman who had been admitted to the medical center with the virus as well as underlying health problems. Her family has been informed.

The third fatality was reportedly an 83-year-old man who was hospitalized at the Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak.

The Health Ministry also said there were 39 people in serious condition, 68 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms.

So far, 68 people have fully recovered from the illness, the ministry said.

Earlier in the day, the ministry said there were 5,240 tests conducted for the virus in the 24 hours from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning, and 59,493 people were under mandatory home quarantine over concerns they may have been exposed to the virus, the ministry noted.

The updated ministry figures came after the government tightened lockdown rules and warned violators could face fines and six months of imprisonment.

The emergency regulations, in effect for a seven-day period, include a prohibition on people venturing more than 100 meters from their homes, apart from under certain circumstances, and the shuttering of synagogues.

Instructions for keeping safe in Israel: English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic
Lies about Israel's Ministry of Health's handling of the Coronovirus are spreading faster than .... know what.

One common trope is that instructions to insure the safety of the populace are only given out in Hebrew.

Um. No.

The truth is out many languages. You need only look.

Netanyahu and Gantz said forming unity government; Blue and White collapses
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz is set to partner Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a unity government, serving initially as foreign minister but then taking over from Netanyahu as prime minister in September 2021, according to a reported deal taking shape amid immense political drama in Israel on Thursday afternoon.

Gantz’s decision to join forces with Netanyahu immediately led to the collapse of Blue and White, with the party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid rejecting the move and apparently heading into opposition with others from his Yesh Atid component of Blue and White. “Gantz chose Netanyahu over Lapid,” Channel 12 reported succinctly.

Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction both filed a formal request to break away from Blue and White late on Thursday afternoon, leaving only Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party to join forces with Netanyahu’s Likud. Lapid had reportedly told Gantz he preferred that Israel go to fourth elections rather than see Blue and White partner Netanyahu in power.

The coalition is reportedly likely to constitute 78-79 MKs — Likud, Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Labor, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism — according to Channel 12. That would leave Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Ya’alon’s Telem, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz and the mainly Arab Joint List in opposition. However, various other fluctuations are deemed possible, with Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser from Telem, for instance, said to be weighing joining the coalition.

The unity deal was taking shape as the Knesset met to vote for a new speaker, following Likud speaker Yuli Edelstein’s resignation on Wednesday.

Gantz offered himself as the sole candidate for the Knesset speaker’s job, which he is set to hold only for a brief period while the terms of the unity coalition are finalized. He will then serve as foreign minister for the first 18 months of the emergency unity government, under the terms of the reported deal, before succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister.

It was not clear what post Netanyahu would fill at that stage. The prime minister has been indicted in three corruption cases, in a trial that was supposed to begin last week but has been postponed to May amid the coronavirus crisis.

The public’s resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic
Israel is perhaps unique in these characteristics and this is perhaps the foundation about why we are acting the way we are in the face of this epidemic.

Israeli decision-makers should look at this fortitude and resilience which can free up their hand about how to react to its enemies, who are starting to see large cracks forming in its deterrence.

Our southern residents, who bear the greatest brunt of the Gaza terrorist menace, are usually the one’s calling for the most robust approach. They know that if Israel reacts forcefully, perhaps more aggressively than ever before, they are likely to spend many weeks and even months in and out of their bomb shelters and safe rooms.

Nevertheless, they support an Israeli victory over its enemies, regardless of the costs.

Our response to the coronavirus pandemic should demonstrate to the country’s politicians and security officials that Israelis are prepared to suffer until total victory over the contagion.

If, when we emerge from our restrictions with all of the carnage and damage, economic and physical, we know that our enemy, in this case the virus, is completely vanquished, we will accept the suffering.

However, if it is only a partial defeat and the enemy continues attacking us every few months, then our sacrifice will have been in vain.

This is the lesson of the Israeli public’s reaction to coronavirus. Hopefully our politicians and decision-makers are listening as they strategize for the next terrorist attack.
Worst of coronavirus 'still ahead of us' warn Bennett, Kochavi
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi warned in a letter to commanders that the worst stage of the coronavirus is “still ahead of us” and that a widespread military operation may also occur as the virus continues to spread.

“There is a serious phase still ahead of us. There will be a deterioration in the scope of the health of patients, the economy and society,” he said in a letter *quoted by Walla!News* and viewed by The Jerusalem Post.

He warned that according to the military’s working assumptions, the corona crisis “will last many months” and that the IDF will have no choice but to increase the scope of assistance it is already providing to the state.

“As time goes on, and as the economic, medical and mental state of the country will grow more difficult, so will the impact on the soldiers, career officers and commanders,” he said.

Nevertheless, the IDF will continue to train and maintain operational readiness, as “an attack, another round of violent confrontation and even a widespread operation can also occur during this period,” Kochavi warned.

The military has said that despite the coronavirus, it is continuing with its normal operational capabilities, with several changes made in order to prevent the spread of the disease, such as keeping troops on base for a month to limit contact with potential carriers.

The IDF also said that it’s delaying a joint air exercise with the US that was supposed to begin on Tuesday. The aerial exercise, in which F-35 stealth fighter jets were set to take part, had received special permission to be held despite a ban on joint international military drills, as it was due to take part in the air with no person-to-person contact.
Seth Frantzman: Across Middle East, militants hang up guns to fight coronavirus
The battle against the coronavirus is as important as the struggle against Israel, an online post by the Palestinian Mujahideen Brigades said Wednesday. They are one of many groups in the Middle East who claim to have swapped their AK-47s for disinfectant during the global pandemic.

The first cases of coronavirus in the Gaza Strip this week have worried Hamas leaders. They are concerned it could spread to the congested cities they govern and overwhelm their already weakened health sector in the blockaded strip.

Hamas has put out videos of its fighters holding hoses rather than rockets and spraying what they claim is disinfectant on party offices and streets.

The Mujahideen Brigades are a small Gaza-based group that has put out several videos in recent months, according to research by Joe Truzman at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s Long War Journal. Now they are working with Hamas to stop the virus.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is supported by Iran, is also joining the battle against the pandemic.
New Test Announced Could Determine If People Were Already Infected With Coronavirus And Are Now Immune
A microbiology lab has announced the development of a new test – the first in the U.S. – to detect if someone has already been infected with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and are thus immune and can return to work.

The lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, led by Dr. Florian Krammer, says it is now rushing to distribute key ingredients for the tests to other organizations and share the testing procedure.

“Ultimately, this [antibody test] might help us figure out who can get the country back to normal,” Florian Krammer, a professor in vaccinology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told Reuters. “People who are immune could be the first people to go back to normal life and start everything up again.”

Other labs are also working on similar tests, according to Reuters:

Several academic laboratories and medical companies are rushing to produce these blood tests, which can quickly identify disease-fighting antibodies in people who already have been infected but may have had mild symptoms or none at all. This is different from the current, sometimes hard-to-come-by diagnostic tests that draw on a nasal swab to confirm active infection.

Leapsmag spoke with Daniel Stadlbauer, a post-doctoral fellow in the lab who helped lead the work, who explained how the test works.

“People coming to the hospital who are suspected to have infection with coronavirus, their blood gets taken routinely. This blood can be used for our test, too. The test will tell you if this person has antibodies against coronavirus. You can also test the blood of people who are not currently sick to see if this person was infected, say, a month ago. If there are antibodies in the blood, you can say this person is probably immune to getting it again,” Stadlbauer said.
Honest Reporting: Does ‘Land for Peace’ Work?
Land for peace has been the central mantra in the decades-long quest to resolve the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

In the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the concept first originated in the diplomatic arena of the United Nations in 1947. UN Resolution 181, better known as the Partition Plan, called for allotting land for the peaceful creation of two countries, Jewish and Arab.

Resolution 181 was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, who declared war in a bid to prevent the creation of the Jewish state. Although the UN failed to implement 181, that first diplomatic solution to the conflict was the original two-state solution, a concept that only came back into vogue in the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967.

In the 1960s the world tended to talk about the “Arab-Israeli” conflict in terms of the tiny Jewish state surrounded and vastly outnumbered by its Arab neighbors. That conflict climaxed in 1967 when Arab countries failed to fulfill their goal of driving the Jews into the sea. The result of the Six-Day War was an Israeli military victory and the capture of the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria.

After the war there was a major diplomatic effort, the result of which was the creation of a new standard when the UN unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 242. Its wording was crafted carefully in order to make the resolution palatable to all sides, and contained the key phrase: “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

The short, but very significant document became the cornerstone for future negotiations. Those unfamiliar with the semantic nuances of 242 unilaterally change the wording to “the territories” and wrongly conclude it means all territories. However, the resolution’s author, British diplomat Sir Hugh Foote, also known as Lord Caradon, emphatically pointed out that the Security Council members passed 242 unanimously with full knowledge of the intentional wording

“It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of 4 June 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial,” Caradon said.
PMW: PMW letter to Pompeo: Rebuff letter by 60 members of Congress that harms Israel's deterrence of terror
A week ago, 60 Democratic members of US Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, criticizing what they called “unlawful home demolitions” by Israel, questioning whether they were carried out using US-supplied equipment or US aid.

Palestinian Media Watch has written to Secretary Pompeo delineating why the house demolitions are both legal and necessary in Israel's war on terror and consistent with US law. PMW requested of Secretary Pompeo:
"Mr. Secretary, it is important that you not only unreservedly reject the content of this letter by members of US Congress, but likewise condemn their support for the violation of law, as well as their attempt to tie Israel's hands in its war against terror. The act of writing and publicizing this letter by members of Congress, indicating support for the PA’s illegal construction and rejection of Israel's right to deter terror, will encourage the PA’s policy of building illegally as well as the PA’s promotion of terror. Your statement affirming Israel's right to enforce its laws and to defend itself against terror, even using United States supplied equipment, is urgent at this time."

The following is PMW's letter in its entirety:

US Secretary of State Mr. Mike Pompeo

U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520

March 25, 2020

Dear Secretary Pompeo,

We were very upset to see the misleading letter sent to you by 60 members of Congress (March 16, 2020), in which they criticized the actions of the State of Israel, which are necessary to ensure both basic law enforcement and essential self-defense.

In the letter, the Members of Congress expressed their concern “over the ongoing home demolitions and forcible transfer of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank… and other communities in East Jerusalem” and questioned whether they were carried out using US-supplied equipment or US aid.

The authors of the letter paint a false picture as if the State of Israel arbitrarily demolishes Palestinian homes and libelously call them “unlawful home demolitions”......
IDF, US Military Conduct Joint Air Drill With F-35 Jets in Israel
The Israeli Air Force and the US military conducted a joint drill in the south of the country with F-35 fighter jets on Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces announced in a statement.

The drill will last until Thursday.

Special measures are being taken to prevent spread of the coronavirus, including no contact between soldiers on the ground, i24 News reported. The drill went ahead despite the fact that currently, there is a ban against joint drills with other countries.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is the newest and most advanced fighter jet in the world.

The IDF is implementing its new “Momentum“ multi-year development plan—under the leadership of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi—that seeks to make the Israeli army function even faster with enhanced electronic communication between different forces.
Islamic State gunman kills 25 in attack on Sikh house of worship in Kabul
A lone Islamic State gunman rampaged through a Sikh house of worship in the heart of the Afghan capital Wednesday, killing 25 worshippers and wounding eight, Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry said.

The gunman held many worshippers hostage for several hours while Afghan special forces, helped by international troops, tried to clear the building. At least one of the dead was a child.

Within hours, the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Afghan special forces rescued at least 80 worshippers who had been trapped inside the Sikh house of worship, known as a Gurdwara, as the gunman lobbed grenades and fired his automatic rifle into the crowd, the ministry said.

Earlier, Afghan lawmaker Narindra Singh Khalsa said he rushed over to help after receiving a call from a person inside the Gurdwara telling him of the attack. There were about 150 people inside at the time, he said.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant postings and groups, said IS claimed responsibility for the attack on the group’s Aamaq media arm. The communique identified the gunman as Indian national Abu Khalid al-Hindi, who carried out the attack to avenge the plight of Muslims living under severe restrictions in Indian-ruled Kashmir, Hindu India’s only Muslim dominated state.
Bank of Israel: Economic Shutdown Due to Coronavirus Could Eat Up 10 Percent of GPD
The shutdown of Israel’s economy due to the coronavirus pandemic will come at a cost of up to NIS 130 billion ($36 billion), which is 10 percent of the nation’s GDP, Israel’s Finance Ministry warned on Tuesday.

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron said that Israel would spend NIS 90 billion ($25 billion) to battle the pandemic “in a short-term scenario,” and NIS 130 billion “in a longer-term scenario.”

“Without health, there is no economy, but without an economy, there will be no health,” he added.

Yaron went on to explain that the extent of the economic blow would depend on government policy.

“I am in daily contact with the prime minister. Right now, the ball is in the Knesset’s hands, and I am calling on the Knesset members to rise above political considerations,” said Yaron.

“This is the time to support businesses. To enable businesses to recover once the restrictions are lifted, we have to help the people who have been hurt and the ones who have been laid off,” he said.
Coronavirus: ‘Let us help,’ says group of FSU doctors
As a growing number of medical staff is forced to enter quarantine after being exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus, a group of young doctors from the Former Soviet Union enrolled in a program to get their license in Israel sent a letter to the health authorities asking to be integrated into the system so that they can give their contribution in this time of crisis.

“We could really help. We don’t know when our exam is going to be, but we would like to start working as soon as possible,” Daria Halochkina told The Jerusalem Post. “We would be happy to do any kind of medical job is needed.”

Originally from Kiev, Ukraine, 23-year-old Halochkina is one of the 58 members of the “Young Doctors” program by Israel Experience, the educational branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel that every year brings between 30,000 and 35,000 people to Israel, about 2,500 of whom on long-term programs.

As of March 25, 926 doctors and over 1,000 nurses have entered isolation because of the virus.
COGAT slams B'Tselem for ‘exploiting coronavirus’
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) slammed the Human Rights NGO B'Tselem for alleging that the IDF demolished a coronavirus treatment center built by Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.

“We are sorry to see a Human Rights NGO choosing to exploit a global crisis to spread fake news,” the COGAT press statement said.
COGAT claims that the demolished structure was a guarding post built illegally and without permits by a resident of Bardala, which is northeast of Nablus.

Neither the Palestinian Authority (PA) nor International Health groups requested to build a treatment center for COVID-19 patients, according to COGAT's claims.

COGAT is coordinating the delivery of thousands of masks and COVID-19 test kits donated by the World Health Organization to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, despite the blockade still enforced there. The aid is also provided to the West Bank, which is under the control of the PA.

President Reuven Rivlin spoke with the President of the PA Mahmoud Abbas, and told him that the virus makes no distinctions between people.
Israel Delivers 3,000 Coronavirus Test Kits, 50,000 Masks to PA
The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) reported on Wednesday that over 3,000 coronavirus test-kits and 50,000 masks were delivered to the Palestinian Authority's health system to offer residents aid in the fight against the coronavirus.

The medical gear was donated by the World Health Organization for the use of medical teams working in the PA's territories in the West Bank. COGAT coordinated the entry of the kits and equipment from Jordan through the Allenby Bridge Crossing.

“Once more COGAT is cooperating closely with the World Health Organization to make assistance possible in the Palestinian Authority’s struggle against the coronavirus outbreak," Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Major General Kamil Abu Rukun. "I commend the teamwork of the international organizations in this important shared endeavor, I wish steady good health to all the residents of the region, and I hope that we will continue to work together in the fight to halt the spread of this dangerous virus.”

The Palestinian Authority has reported 64 total confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. One Palestinian has died after being infected.
Khaled Abu Toameh: Most Palestinians support cooperation with Israel to combat coronavirus
Most Palestinians support the cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a public opinion poll published by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO).

The poll also found that a majority of Palestinians are satisfied with the performance of the PA health authorities and security forces to combat the spread of the virus.

Conducted during the period from March 12-15, the survey, the first of its kind since the outbreak of the virus, covered 583 Palestinians from east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

CPCO president Nabil Kukali said the poll has a ±4.5% margin of error.

Asked if they support or oppose the cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians to prevent the spread of coronavirus, 68% of respondents said they supported it at various extents.

Another 80% expressed different approval of the efforts of the PA government in combating the virus spread. More than 60% expressed support for the way the PA security forces have been handling the crisis.

The poll found that 84% of the Palestinians are worried about the spread of the virus in the Palestinian territories.

The results showed that 43% of respondents believe the threat of coronavirus is “exaggerated,” as opposed to 55% who disagree with this assessment.
PMW: Fatah: Honoring terrorists is more important than stopping Coronavirus
In what was probably the largest gathering this week anywhere in the world, since self-isolation is the key to defeating the Coronavirus, Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah Movement organized a celebration with “thousands” of Palestinians crammed together to honor a terrorist released from prison.

Fatah’s message to its own people is that honoring a terrorist involved in the murder of 6 Israelis takes priority over their own health.

The following pictures of the massive crowds were posted on Fatah’s official Facebook page with the following text:
"The reception for released prisoner Nidal Turkeman tonight at the Jenin refugee camp"
[Official Fatah Facebook page, March 24, 2020]

Even the Palestinian Authority criticized the event. Ironically, the Palestinian Authority – also headed by Mahmoud Abbas - used this opportunity to praise terrorist prisoners as ideal law-abiding citizens, saying “Our heroic prisoners are the first to carefully implement the law.” Palestinian Media Watch has exposed that the PA tells their people that killing Israelis is protected behavior under international law:

"[PA] Government Spokesman Ibrahim Melhem said today that the mass reception that was held yesterday in Jenin for a prisoner [Nidal Naghnaghiya Turkeman] (i.e., involved in the murder of at least 6) who was released from the occupation's prison is 'an unfortunate thing, and a violation of the precautionary and defensive measures taken by the [PA] government to protect our people from the spread of the Coronavirus.' … He continued: 'We expect our people in all of the districts to change the culture of receptions, joy, and celebrations in honor of our sons returning from the prison cells. Our heroic prisoners are the first to carefully implement the law, and the last who think to violate the order and precautionary and defensive measures, because they are a role-model of commitment and discipline."
[WAFA, official PA news agency, March 25, 2020]
MEMRI: Hamas Supporters Debate: Should The Movement Maintain The Lull With Israel During The COVID-19 Outbreak, Or Fire Rockets And Thus Double The Number Of Cases In Israel?
The spread of the coronavirus in Israel and in the Palestinian territories is raising questions in Gaza regarding the relations with Israel on the healthcare, economic and political levels.

Fearing that a coronavirus outbreak in the Gaza Strip could cause a severe crisis there, Hamas threatened that, if the financial aid from Qatar is delayed, it will exacerbate the conflict with Israel and "send half of Israeli society into the bomb shelters," thus increasing the spread of the virus in Israel. The spokesman of Hamas's military wing also demanded that Israel release the Hamas members incarcerated in its prisons, to keep them from contracting the disease.

Hamas supporters on social media debated what is the best way to handle the conflict with Israel in the current period. Some expressed support for Hamas's threats, calling to use the coronavirus outbreak to exacerbate the conflict with Israel by firing rockets or sending balloons carrying the virus into its territory. Others, such as the former mayor of Khan Younis Dr. Fayez Abu Shamala, rejected these ideas, arguing that this is a time to be humane, even towards the enemy, to maintain the ceasefire with Israel and to advance a prisoner exchange deal.

The following is a sampling of messages posted by Hamas supporters on social media and in the Hamas-affiliated press on this topic.

Hamas Threatens: Rockets Will Force Israelis To Congregate In Shelters, Thus Increasing The Spread Of The Coronavirus Among Them

According to the Lebanese Al-Akhbar daily, Hamas informed Israel, via Egypt and Qatar, that Gaza would not be able to handle the financial implications of a health crisis caused by the virus, and that, if Israel delays the monthly aid package from Qatar as part of the restrictions on movement through the border crossings, Hamas could "ratchet up [the conflict] on the ground, on the [Gaza-Israel] border." It cited Hamas sources as saying that "the resistance can send half of Israeli society into the bomb shelters, which will increase the number of coronavirus cases and cause Israel to lose control [over the spread of the epidemic]." Alongside these threats, Hamas also urged Egypt and Qatar to pressure Israel to provide Gaza with medical equipment for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.[1] On March 22 it was reported that, due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Emir of Qatar, which has been providing financial aid to Gaza on a monthly basis, had ordered to deliver $150 million to Gaza over the next six months.[2]

The idea of attacking Israel at this time was also voiced by Hamas supporters on social media, who noted that rocket attacks from Gaza would force Israelis to congregate in shelters and thus increase the number of COVID-19 cases among them. A few rejected this idea, on the grounds that even in war one must not lose sight of moral values

Why Iran Won't Make Another Nuclear Deal
The Trump administration will not be able to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran. And should the Democrats reclaim the White House, they will not be able to revive the old one.

This is the result of the ascendance of Islamist hardliners and scientists who are more interested in the bomb than in another accord with America.

Two key factors made the Iran nuclear deal possible. The first was an Iranian president who believed that the key to his country's economic fortunes was an agreement that would pave the way for foreign investments.

The second was the willingness of folks at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization to accept restrictions on the program. Neither factor is present today or likely to recur.

In today's Iran, neither the political class nor the scientific establishment wants a new nuclear agreement.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization, is on the verge of modernizing a nuclear infrastructure that can produce bombs quickly and, he hopes, without getting detected. This means he will not yield to any proposed restrictions.
Exclusive: Iran Imprisoning Coronavirus Whistleblowers, State Department Says
Tehran is lying to the international community about the number of citizens infected and killed by coronavirus and imprisoning dissenters for speaking out, the U.S. State Department tells the Washington Free Beacon.

"The regime has imprisoned dozens of Iranians for sharing statistics and forced hospital officials across Iran to falsify the number of cases and deaths," said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

The Iranian regime claims the numbers of those infected and dead stand at 24,811 and 1,934, respectively. But the United States and other observers say there are far more casualties. In a bid to keep the actual infection rate and death toll secret, Iranian officials have resorted to violence and subterfuge. Their efforts include enlisting U.S. allies in a campaign to weaken the Trump administration's tough economic sanctions on the country, a move that could provide the regime with billions in cash.

"We can be sure that the same regime that lied about shooting down a passenger jet and that still hasn't revealed the number of protesters killed last November is not being transparent with the number of cases and deaths from coronavirus today," Ortagus said, referring to Iran's downing of a commercial airliner last year that killed everyone on board.

Iran, through its state-controlled press organs, claims 8,913 citizens have recovered from the coronavirus as of Tuesday evening. Several senior Iranian leaders have already died from the illness, while others have been forced to admit they are infected. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exiled opposition group that seeks to depose the hardline government, alleges that nearly 6,000 Iranians have died from coronavirus as of last week. The group said its data were collected by dissidents operating inside the country.
Iran said to expel Doctors Without Borders team that came to fight virus
Iran has reportedly kicked out a team from the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders that arrived to set up a field hospital amid an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus that has already killed at least 1,800 people in the country.

Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to Iran’s health minister, tweeted his thanks Monday to the international medical organization, known by its French acronym MSF, but noted the country does “not have a need for hospital beds set up by foreign forces,” the Saudi Al-Arabiya network reported.

On Monday the Geneva-headquartered MSF said in a statement it was in the process of setting up a 50-bed inflatable treatment unit staffed by nine emergency workers in Isfahan, the second-worst-hit province in Iran. The equipment was airlifted from France and was supposed to have been installed on the grounds of the Amin Hospital in Isfahan.

“We hope our assistance will relieve at least some of the pressure on the local health system,” Julie Reversรฉ, MSF’s representative in Iran, said in the statement. “We heard the Iranian authorities’ calls for more support to help them cope with the outbreak and, as a medical organization already present in the country, we offered to help with what we believe can provide the most value: assisting with treating the most severe cases.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, said Sunday his country would never accept any aid to fight the novel coronavirus from the United States, which he called “charlatans.”

Family of FBI Agent Missing in Iran Says U.S. Officials Believe He Is Dead
The family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran over ten years ago, has announced that U.S. officials believe he died in the intervening years.

“We recently received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody. We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the family said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Those who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, including those in the U.S. government who for many years repeatedly left him behind, will ultimately receive justice for what they have done. We will spend the rest of our lives making sure of this, and the Iranian regime must know we will not be going away,” the statement continued. “We expect American officials, as well as officials around the world, to continue to press Iran to seek Bob’s return, and to ensure those Iranian officials involved are held accountable.“

Levinson disappeared from Kish Island, off the coast of Iran, while on an intelligence-gathering mission with the CIA in 2007. While he was held in Iran, Levinson’s whereabouts remained unknown, and only in 2019 did Iranian authorities even publicly acknowledge filing a missing-person’s report regarding the former agent.

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