Turkish-backed miltants recapture several towns in Southern-Idlib in new large scale-attacks

On February 29, the remaining militants in northwest Syria launched a new large-scale attack in the southern Idlib countryside with direct support from the Turkish military.

Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the National Front for Liberation (NFL) are reportedly leading the assault on the ground.

In the few first hours of the attack, the militants recaptured the key town of Kafar Aweed as well as the nearby town of Zaqqum.

The Turkish military is reportedly providing the militants with a direct fire support. Heavy artillery is pounding SAA positions in southern Idlib, while armed drones are targeting any troops or equipment that would move in the open.

According to several sources, the militants are still advancing in southern Idlib. The SAA’s newly-established positions in the region may be on the brink of collapse.

A similar Turkish-backed attack allowed the militants to recapture Saraqib city in southeast Idlib earlier this week. The SAA was pushed out of the city in a single day.

Turkey’s significant support for the militants has allowed them to gain momentum and inflicted catastrophic losses on the SAA and its allies. Facing this escalation by Ankara, Damascus and its allies will soon have to take decisive action to prevent a real defeat in Greater Idlib.

Elementor has raised a $15 million Series A, led by Lightspeed Venture Partners

Elementor has seen explosive growth in their WordPress-based page building application since its release in May 2016, now boasting more than 4 million installs of the free version of the plugin.

The paid version of Elementor was introduced in November 2016, with a common freemium upgrade model. The Elementor community has taken off, furthering the product’s growth and loyalty among freelancers, DIYers, and site wranglers.

In such a crowded space as WordPress page building plugins, and especially considering core WordPress efforts via Gutenberg, Elementor’s meteoric rise is an incredible accomplishment.

Others have taken notice. In their Series A fundraising event, Lightspeed Venture Partners is leading a $15 million round. Elementor has been working on raising money since at least the second quarter of 2019, so this news is a long time coming.

Edit: Envato was rumored to be investing as well. We’ve confirmed with Envato that while they are working closely with Elementor on some projects, they are not an investor in this round.

We expect to see a fully hosted version of Elementor’s site building capabilities where WordPress is (at least partially) hidden from the view of the user. They are currently hiring for their “Cloud team” which is tasked with “building, maintaining, and supporting the company ‘Cloud Hosting SaaS Solution’.”

What has made Elementor stand out thus far is its relative intuitiveness and the establishment of a very loyal following — mostly lured in with extremely attractive pricing of the “Pro” product ($49 per site, or only $199 for unlimited sites), and a very generously featured free tier.

Not many WordPress-centric companies have raised money. I’m very interested to see where Elementor chooses to take the product from here. They certainly have both the momentum and the backing to do something big.

With a team based in Israel, Elementor has more than 100 employees now working on the product and support. This raise will surely enable them to extend their runway while maintaining an attractive price point for the paid product and assist in the development of their next major release.

Health Ministry orders Haifa hospital to set up special unit for coronavirus

The Health Ministry has ordered Rambam Medical Center in Haifa to establish an isolated unit to treat coronavirus patients in case the number of infections in the country spikes, the hospital said Saturday.

The hospital stressed it is not currently treating anyone with the virus and said the move was part of efforts to set up additional centers in northern and southern Israel for treating people with the pathogen.

“The preparations include creating a designated and separate ventilation system for this unit and the preparation of infrastructure that will ensure a safe and comprehensive quarantine, according to the strict requirements determined by the Health Ministry,” the hospital said in a statement.

It said the unit will be set up on its own floor in one of the buildings at the medical center and have a separate entrance from the rest of the hospital.

Dr. Michael Halbertal, the director of Rambam, touted the hospital’s past experience in dealing with complex medical situations.

“There is also no doubt that the challenge of providing medical service to members of the Israeli public sick with the coronavirus will be done with the same level of dedication and professionalism,” he said.


Earlier Saturday, the Health Ministry called for anyone to self-quarantine who was in close proximity to two of the Israelis who tested positive for the coronavirus and published a list of places they visited since returning to the country.

The ministry has a web page where members of the public can register that they have self-quarantined. There is also a hotline, at *5400, that can be used for the same purpose.

“If, during the course of the quarantine, symptoms of fever, coughing, or difficulty breathing appear” the person should immediately call emergency services, the statement said.

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in these areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In a dramatic statement Wednesday, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad.

“If you don’t genuinely have to fly, don’t do so,” the ministry said in a travel warning.

Israel is the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 85,000 worldwide and claimed over 2,900 lives, almost all of them in China.

The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.

Header: Extra-large isolation tent designed for the Israeli Ministry of Health and deployed in Rambam Medical Center’s underground emergency hospital. Photo courtesy of Rambam Medical Center, Haifa

Greece sends 50 naval vessels & commandos to block refugee wave out of Turkey

As Zero Hedge reported, Greece sealed its key land Kastanies border crossing with Turkey Friday after Ankara declared it’s allowing refugees to flee Idlib and on to Europe for at least 72 hours, in response to Syrian-Russian airstrikes killing 33 Turkish troops Thursday.

Germany’s Bild newspaper reported Friday that Greece is taking further emergency measures to prevent Erdogan from effectively “opening the gates” on new waves of refugee and migrant hordes seeking entry to the EU, noting the country “completely closed off its borders with Turkey: not just for refugees, but for EVERYONE.”

The newspaper said 50 naval ships, likely most of them small patrol vessels, have been deployed by the Hellenic Navy to ensure those coming out of Turkey don’t get through.

Citing a top Greek government official, Bild reported further this will include air support.

“According to BILD information, the government sent 50 warships to the Greek islands to protect the EU’s external borders,” the German tabloid said. “Ten helicopters are also supposed to secure the transitions to Turkey on land.”

Greece’s Ekathimerini newspaper said military commandos were being sent to key crossings following an emergency meeting of key government officials Friday to deal with the crisis:

“Patrols along the land and river border in northeastern Evros have been bolstered since Friday morning, when the first large groups of migrants began to arrive following an announcement on Thursday night by a Turkish government official saying that Ankara would no longer try to prevent Syrians fleeing war in their country from attempting the crossing to the European Union.”

“The army has also dispatched two commando units to help the Hellenic Police guards at the border, and particularly to patrol the more dangerous sections of the Evros River.”

The Guardian reported further early Friday: “Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have begun preparing to travel towards the country’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria after Ankara’s sudden decision to no longer impede their passage to Europe.”

“Turkish police, coastguard and border security officials were ordered to stand down overnight on Thursday, Turkish officials briefed reporters,” the report added.

As European officials mull whether this is but more of Erdogan’s threats or perhaps an early “taste” of what’s to come, or whether the flood has begun, Bulgaria has begun taking extra security action as well, bolstering patrols along border areas with Turkey

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis vowed that “no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated” – noting greatly tightened security along the EU’s external borders.

Turkey’s communications director Fahrettin Altun had earlier said Turkey had “no choice” but to relax border controls after its pleas for greater European help in assisting with the over 3 million refugees on its territory went unheeded.

However, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu sought to downplay new reports of Turkey encouraging refugees exit toward Europe, saying Turkey’s policy hasn’t changed. But footage coming out of Turkey and the Greece-Turkey main crossing throughout Friday speaks otherwise.

Header: Migrants onboard a dinghy arrive at the village of Skala Sikaminias, on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Feb. 29, 2020. Michael Varaklas—AP

US and Taliban ink Afghanistan peace agreement, set conditions for troop withdrawal

Washington and the Taliban movement have signed a deal that lays out conditions for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

The agreement was signed by US peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and one of the Taliban’s senior leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Qatar’s capital Doha on Saturday.

The deal will see Washington and its allies withdrawing their troops from five bases in Afghanistan within the next 135 days. The remaining American soldiers will leave the country in 14 months if the Taliban fulfills its commitments.

The document lays the groundwork for future negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, aimed at bringing a lasting peace to the country. The US has agreed to facilitate the talks and lift sanctions from Taliban members by August, provided the negotiations commence as planned. Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called on all of his fighters to honor and abide by the agreement.

The US and Afghan governments said earlier that the peace agreement will include guarantees that Afghan territory will not be used by terrorist groups to target the US and its allies.

Also, Washington and Kabul agreed on a prisoner exchange with the Taliban by March 10, vowing to release up to 5,000 and 1,000 people respectively.

Calling the deal “a decisive step toward real peace in Afghanistan,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke about the victories against Al-Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 attacks.

“Al-Qaeda today is a shadow of its former self. We have decimated its leadership, and now we have the Taliban agreeing that Al-Qaeda must never again find safe haven in Afghanistan,” he said.

The US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, expelling the Taliban from the country’s capital Kabul and other major cities. The years that followed saw prolonged fighting and the resurgence of militants. In the end, officials in Washington reluctantly agreed to hold peace talks with the Taliban, which stalled several times.

The US has roughly 13,000 service members stationed in Afghanistan.

‘Get out of the way, let us deal with Assad regime’, Erdogan says he told Putin regarding Idlib, Syria

As tensions in Idlib province reach the boiling point, Turkey has asked Russia to let it fight the Syrian government face-to-face, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed.

Erdogan asked Putin “to get out of the way” and let the Turkish troops deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Turkish leader told his AK Party on Saturday.

Erdogan was explaining to lawmakers his government’s handling of the escalation in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where Turkish and Syrian troops have engaged in several clashes over the past weeks. The hostilities have all but ruined Turkey’s 2018 agreement with Russia on de-escalating the violence in the area, which remains the last major stronghold of anti-government forces in Syria.

Describing his phone conversation with Putin, Erdogan said if Russia’s interest in Syria was to keep a military presence there, Turkey, a NATO member, does not object to it.

“I asked Mr Putin: What’s your business there? If you establish a base, do so but get out of our way and leave us face to face with the regime.” 

Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help Damascus fight against jihadist groups. Moscow said helping the Syrian government prevented future attacks launched by this would-be entity against other nations, including Russia.

Erdogan said Ankara now considers Syrian government troops a legitimate target for its attacks, claiming Damascus lost over 2,100 soldiers in Idlib. It was not immediately clear if the casualty number only represents Syrian troops killed directly by the Turkish military or includes those killed by Turkish-backed armed groups. Erdogan added that “seven warehouses with chemicals” were also destroyed in Syria, but did not offer any details or evidence regarding whether Syria still had chemical weapons in its possession.

The Turkish leader said fighting against the Syrian government is necessary to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, which would cause a new influx of refugees into Turkey across the border. Part of the Turkish response to the situation was opening the border with Europe to asylum-seekers. Erdogan said the EU failed to support Turkey, which already hosts over 3,6 million refugees from Syria and faces as many as 4 million new arrivals now.

“We will not close those doors… Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.” 

The Turkish president said he expects the international community and NATO in particular to support his country in the fight against the Assad government.

He claimed Turkey’s incursion into Syria was made by invitation “from the Syrian people” and that Ankara is not interested in territorial expansion or capturing Syrian oil. The latter remark seems like a veiled jab at US President Donald Trump, who said “securing the oil” in eastern Syria was a major achievement of the US troops deployed there.

Moscow: Russian and Turkish diplomats, who held consultations in Ankara on the unfolding crisis in Syria’s Idlib province, have reaffirmed their nations’ commitments to deescalate the hostilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Both sides also agreed “to continue fighting against terrorist forces as designated by the UN Security Council” and to protect the civilian population, the statement said.

Video; SpaceX Mars-colonizing Starship prototype POP & IMPLODE after failing to contain cryogenic nitrogen

Starship is a lot like the Falcon 1, when countless failures at McGregor would send tanks and engines tumbling across Texas like a Russian ballerina. They weren’t broadcast to the world, but it’s part of going fast.

One of SpaceX’s prototypes of the ambitious Starship spacecraft suffered a failure during a pressure test at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

The Starship SN1 was placed on the pad before liquid nitrogen was pumped into its tank to test if its improved steel structure can withstand cryogenic fuels. Apparently it couldn’t, since it failed just like the Starship Mk1 did in November of last year during a similar test.

Onsite cameras show large clouds of white vapor billowing under the SN1. It was then propelled several meters into the air by a powerful burst and imploded before crashing down.

The Starship is meant for future manned missions, including Mars colonization. Experts say the Friday night SN1 flop, spectacular as it may be, represents a minor bump on the road rather than a major stumbling block.

SpaceX will still have to amend its program after losing the prototype, since it was intended to be the first to perform a flight, rising to an altitude of about 20km sometime after a static fire of three Raptor engines.

The hidden side of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center – the Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital

After the war’s conclusion, Dr. Halberthal explains, hospital management decided that those circumstances could not be allowed to reoccur. Rambam Medical Center, the primary hospital for northern Israel, is committed to treat patients under all scenarios. Dr. Halberthal, who has held numerous professional leadership positions at Rambam since 2001, and who became general director in 2019, says, “Rambam is committed to treating patients under all circumstances. We don’t have the right to say that we are not ready,” At that time, the hospital was dealing with two major issues – enabling adequate protection from attack and addressing the need to add additional parking for hospital visitors.

Rambam Medical Center ingeniously solved both problems simultaneously by building an immense, three-floor underground parking area – each floor is 20,000 sq.m. (5 acres) – that can accommodate 1,400 cars, and, in emergency, can be transformed into a 2,000-bed underground hospital, fully protected and secured from both conventional and non-conventional attack.

Construction of the underground facility, known as the Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital, was funded primarily by the Ofer family. Dr. Halberthal also expressed his gratitude to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and its founder, the late Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who raised the funds for the underground hospital’s fortified command center.

Initially, the work was done by the hospital. Later, the government decided to partner with the hospital, and Halberthal says that now, “It is a strategic facility of Israel, much more than just Rambam.” Work began in 2009 and the subterranean structure was completed in 2014. “It can be made operational very quickly once the decision is made to activate,” he says. “Within six to eight hours we can begin evacuating patients to the underground hospital, and we can reach full capacity in 48-72 hours.” A decision to move underground would be made by the high commission of hospitalization of Israel, the emergency services of the Health Ministry and the IDF, says Halberthal.

The underground hospital can accommodate 2,000 patients, includes four operating rooms, full electronic and communications gear, oxygen, and all necessary information technology resources required for accessing medical records. Everything – the layout of the hospital, all the checklists and every scenario – is computerized. The underground hospital can be used not only in the event of a military confrontation, but for any bio-hazard situation and major isolation scenario, and in an instance of chemical warfare, decontamination would be done underground.

“This facility is huge,” marvels Halberthal. “In the case of a military confrontation or other scenario that requires it to be used, we’ll have close to 8,000 people underground, including two thousand patients, three thousand medical staff, and families. If something were to develop, we have a solution to treat patients, casualties and deliveries in a protected area without endangering patients and staff.”

The Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital is intended to be a regional solution, and Dr. Halberthal notes that in the event of a conflict, it would be difficult to provide services within individual northern communities for patients, especially those requiring dialysis. The underground facility can house 94 dialysis units for patients from northern Israel who would be unable to receive services in their local communities during wartime, as well as birth and delivery units, and space for 120 intensive care patients.

Though the underground hospital has never been actually used, the hospital conducts drills and tests regularly to make sure that it is ready to be activated at a moment’s notice. Part of the tests also involve soldiers from the IDF Home Front Command, which would be involved in moving the hospital underground.

There are other hospitals in Israel that have protected areas and shelters, but none have the capability of taking an entire 1,000-bed facility, moving it underground, and providing almost double the amount of beds. “We had to write the operational manual for it, including protocols and checklists, because there is nothing like this anywhere in the world. Every unit of the hospital including both clinical, and non-clinical units, has a special red book, explaining what to do in case we have to move underground.”

Dr. Halberthal says that the underground hospital can remain operational for 35 days, provided that it receives supplies from the outside. In extreme circumstances, without delivery of supplies, the hospital could operate for three days.

“We are ready, under certain scenarios, to close the doors, and be self-sufficient, without any help from the outside,” he adds.

IN ADDITION to the Sammy Ofer Fortified Underground Emergency Hospital, additional areas of the above-ground sections of the hospital have been fortified. Infants in the neo-natal intensive care unit of the colorful and spacious Ruth Rapaport Children’s Hospital are protected from both conventional and non-conventional attack, as will patients on the lower floors of the Eyal Ofer Cardiology Center, which is under construction, including those in the intensive care units, the catherization lab and its operating rooms. The hospital’s emergency room is completely protected as well.

Rambam Medical Center, as the largest academic tertiary referral center in the region and its only Level 1 Trauma Center, has used its knowledge of coping with trauma and emergency preparedness to assist other hospitals around the world.

“Throughout the years,” says Dr. Halberthal, “we have accumulated a great deal of knowledge on how to cope with these types of circumstances, and as a result, we developed the International Center for Trauma, Emergency and Mass Casualty Situations, which I chair. The center offers an educational program aimed at all professionals who are involved in the organization and treatment of mass casualty incidents; pre-hospital forces, hospital staff, physicians, nurses and administrators.

“While not everyone is facing a war situation, we need to prepare for all types of emergencies – whether they are man-made or caused by nature. We travel around the world, teach, and exchange knowledge, helping others prepare. This is part of our mission.”

Referring to the underground hospital, Dr. Halberthal says, “We hope we will not need to use it.” Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that Rambam Medical Center is well-prepared, both above ground and below, to treat and protect its patients in the North.

This article was written in cooperation with Rambam Medical Center.

Header: Rambam hospital staff ready a unit in the underground facility. Photo courtesy of Rambam.

Videos: Turkish drone strikes inflicts catastrophic losses to Syrian army

While the beginning of the video shows strikes which were carried out over the last few days, the last part includes footage of dozens of strikes which were conducted within the last 24 hours.

The Turkish strikes destroyed dozens of battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), rocket launchers, howitzers, pickup-mounted machine guns and trucks.

One of the Turkish strikes also destroyed what appears to be a Pantsir-S1 air-defense system of the Syrian Arab Air Defense Forces (SyAADF). Ankara had claimed that a system of this type was destroyed along with a BUK medium-range air-defense system.


According to the Turkish Ministry of National Defense, 8 battle tanks, 4 IFVs, 5 howitzers and 2 rocket launchers of the SAA were destroyed in the last 24 hours.

The strikes were most likely carried out by Turkish-made ANKA-S and Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs).
The intense Turkish strikes begin after a series of Syrian airstrikes on southern Idlib which claimed the lives of 33 Turkish service members and injured dozens others.

The SAA’s catastrophic losses will likely allow Turkish-backed militants, including al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), to conduct more offensive operations in Greater Idlib.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Ministry of National Defense acknowledged late on February 28 that another service member was killed in Syria’s Greater Idlib region.

In a short press release, the ministry said that an artillery strike by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) claimed the life of the service member and injured at least two others.

With this new casualty, the total number of Turkish soldiers killed by the Syrian military in Greater Idlib has risen to 53. Dozens of other soldiers and officers were injured.

PM’s son in legal quarrel after tweet leads followers to harass young woman

Yair Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, was embroiled in a new scandal Friday after posting a photo and details a young woman who took a selfie photo with Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, leading her to suffer online harassment and claims of her supposed sexual exploits with Gantz by supporters of Netanyahu and his father.

Netanyahu tweeted the photo of Dana Cassidy, asking: “Does anyone know who this is?” He did so after posting unsubstantiated allegations about affairs Gantz supposedly had.

A pro-Likud Twitter account responded with the image of Cassidy with Gantz, with the superimposed caption: “He invited me for tea and it turned me on.” Cassidy said she never wrote anything of the sort.

Dana Cassidy – self-proclaimed ”Animal Liberation Activist”

Cassidy, an animal rights activist, took the photo with Gantz when he visited the farm where she works alongside Blue and White MK Miki Haimovitch.

Cassidy said the reactions to Netanyahu’s post on social media were a form of “mass sexual harassment,” with posters making numerous sexual references to her and her supposed relationship with Gantz.

She said she was later inundated with “a flood” of calls from the media asking her for comment on her purported affair with the politician.

“Smart guy, Yair Netanyahu,” she wrote on Facebook. “He knows the job. He knows he doesn’t need to do much. He can make one post about ‘Benny Gantz’s lovers.’ Then he’ll make another post, with the photo of an anonymous girl… and he won’t write much. He’ll just ask who it is. And that’s it. His supporters will take it from there. His attack dogs will charge. They know the job.

“Is everything allowed Yair?” she wrote. “It didn’t matter to you [if I could handle it]… you did it anyway. You did it because I was just a face that could serve your purpose. Just a face, without a person. A photo without a mom or a dad.”

Cassidy’s father Kobi then wrote an angry Facebook post addressed to the prime minister in which he said Yair “raped my daughter… in broad daylight, in the village square… he raped her honor. While using his status as the prime minister’s son, and as part of a disgusting campaign for you.”

“At his direction and inspired by him, my daughter’s honor was trampled publicly by every malcontent and good-for-nothing,” he said.

“Take a moment and look at Twitter. Look at what they write about her. Read it yourself. If that’s not group rape in broad daylight, I don’t know what is.”

Dana Cassidy on Friday said she would take Netanyahu to court for his actions.

Yair Netanyahu responded by threatening Kobi Cassidy with legal action for libel, and saying he’d demand NIS 1 million ($286,000) in damages if the post was not deleted.

Cassidy responded in another Facebook post: “He’ll slander, he’ll say about anyone he wants whatever he wants but we need to be silent… Bad news Yair. I won’t be silent. Sue Yair, sue.”

Yair Netanyahu has a history of posting incendiary messages on social media and tweets fast and often against those he believes have wronged him and his family.

Walkouts as Roman Polanski wins best director at French Oscars

Roman Polanski won best director for “An Officer and a Spy” at a fractious ceremony for the French Oscars, the Cesars, that ended in walkouts and recrimination in Paris early Saturday.

The entire French academy had been forced to resign earlier this month amid fury that the veteran — wanted in the US for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977 — had topped the list of nominations.

Protesters chanting “Lock up Polanski!” tried to storm the theater where the ceremony was being held before being pushed back by police firing tear gas.

France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester had warned that giving the maker of “Rosemary’s Baby” a Cesar would be “symbolically bad given the stance we must take against sexual and sexist violence.”

But Polanski won two awards, best adapted screenplay and best director — with the latter prompting Adele Haenel, who was nominated for best actress for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” to storm out, crying “Shame!”

Haenel has become a hero of the #MeToo movement in France after accusing the director of her first film, Christophe Ruggia, of sexually harassing her when she was only 12.

Polanski’s film also picked up best costume design.

“Distinguishing Polanski is spitting in the face of all victims,” Haenel had said in the run-up to the Cesars. “It means raping women isn’t that bad.”

Polanski, 86, and the entire team of his historical drama had boycotted the ceremony, fearing a “public lynching.”

“An Officer and a Spy” is based on the Dreyfus affair which divided France in the late 19th century when a Jewish army officer was wrongly prosecuted for spying.

“What place can there be in such deplorable conditions for a film about the defense of truth, the fight for justice, [against] blind hate and anti-Semitism?” the director told AFP.

Polanski’s epic, which won two top prizes at the Venice film festival last year, was in the running in 12 categories at the Cesars.

But the big winner on the night was the Oscar-nominated “Les Miserables,” set in one of France’s deprived and restive suburbs.

It took best film and three other prizes including the audience award.

It’s Mali-born director Ladj Ly made an appeal for unity on a highly fraught night, saying “our enemy is not the other, but poverty.”

“Papicha,” a touching story of Algerian women fighting for their freedom by Mounia Meddour, also fared well, winning both best first film and best female newcomer for actress Lyna Khoudri.

With the French film industry at war with itself over Polanski, Hollywood star Brad Pitt also snubbed the event having reportedly been offered an honorary award.

The French press had dubbed the event “The Cesars of Anguish,” with Le Parisien daily mocking up a movie poster of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

And the ceremony lived up to its billing.

The poisonous atmosphere had already worsened on the eve of the awards when 30 film figures from minority backgrounds lashed the lip service they claimed the industry plays to inclusion.

In blistering open letter they said black, North African and Asian-origin performers are mostly confined to stereotypical bit parts in French films.

On the night, one of the signatories of the letter, actress Aissa Maiga, delivering a scathing critique of casual racism in the industry as she presented the prize for best newcomer, including skewering presenter Florence Foresti for once donning blackface.

But it was the absent figure of Polanski which caused most unease, with a presenter only daring to mumble his name when he opened the envelope for his first win.

The publicity campaign for Polanski’s movie was halted last year after another woman, photographer Valentine Monnier, claimed that she had also been raped by the director in 1975.

But that did not stop it becoming a box office hit in France.

Polanski had told AFP that he had decided to stay away from the ceremony to protect his family and his team from abuse.

“The activists brandish the figure of 12 women who I am supposed to have molested half a century ago,” he said.

“These fantasies of sick minds are treated as established fact,” he complained.

Pope sick a 2nd day with apparent cold, cancels audiences

Pope Francis canceled his official audiences Friday after apparently coming down with a cold.

The Vatican said the 83-year-old pontiff celebrated morning Mass as usual and greeted participants at the end. He planned to keep his private meeting schedule as planned, but decided to cancel the official audiences, the Vatican said.

The Vatican hasn’t said what exactly Francis has come down with, but he was coughing and blowing his nose during Ash Wednesday Mass this week.

On Thursday, he canceled a planned trip across town to celebrate Mass with Rome priests.

His illness comes amid an outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy that has sickened more than 650 people, almost all of them in the north. Rome had three cases, but all three recovered.

The Argentine pope has generally enjoyed good health. He lost part of one lung as a young man because of a respiratory illness, and suffers from sciatica, which makes walking difficult.

Header: Pope Francis wipes his nose during the Ash Wednesday Mass opening Lent, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

US spy agencies monitoring coronavirus spread with focus on India

Spy agencies in the US are monitoring the spread of coronavirus across the world — with a focus on India — as officials grapple with concerns over the country’s ability to handle a widespread outbreak.

India has confirmed just three cases of COVID-19 in the country, while its government says 23,531 people are under observation, the Economic Times reported.

So far, the country has had three confirmed cases of the coronavirus. All the three patients, from the southern Indian state of Kerala, have fully recovered.

Six Indian nationals onboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship have also tested positive. The ship, in Japan, has become a hotbed for the virus.

But sources familiar with the matter told Reuters there are concerns about how the country would cope with an epidemic of the deadly bug.

US agencies are also concerned about the weak ability of governments in some developing countries to handle an outbreak, according to another source, the news service reported.

Spy agencies have briefed the House Intelligence Committee on the virus.

“The Committee has received a briefing from the IC (intelligence community) on coronavirus, and continues to receive updates on the outbreak on a daily basis,” an Intelligence Committee official told Reuters. “Addressing the threat has both national security and economic dimensions, requiring a concerted government-wide effort and the IC is playing an important role in monitoring the spread of the outbreak, and the worldwide response.”

Intelligence agencies are now principally responsible for monitoring the spread of coronavirus and assessing the responses of governments around the world, according to Reuters.

A source told the outlet that US agencies would use various intelligence tools, ranging from undercover informants to electronic eavesdropping, to track the impact of the virus.

Sanders would beat Trump 65-30% among US Jewish voters, new poll finds

Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders would overwhelmingly outperform US President Donald Trump with US Jewish voters in a head-to-head match-up this fall, according to new polling from the non-partisan Jewish Electorate Institute (JEI).

The self-proclaimed democratic socialist would defeat Trump with the demographic group 65% to 30%, despite only 52% of American Jews having a favorable view of Sanders and 45% having an unfavorable view of him, the survey found.

Trump is far more unpopular with the US Jewish community. Sixty-six percent of the poll’s respondents disapprove of the job he’s doing in office.

Indeed, according to JEI, every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate would defeat Trump handily with Jewish voters in a general election. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg would win 69% to 31%; Bloomberg 67% to 28%; Biden 67% to 31%; and Warren 65% to 32%.

Sanders, however, leads the pack after winning the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses and claiming the highest number of pledged delegates to date. At the same time, he is surging nationally.

The poll, conducted by Garin-Hart-Yang Research Associates on behalf of JEI, took place from February 18-24. The online survey of 1,001 self-identified Jewish voters who indicate that they are likely to vote in the November election has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Only 32% of Jewish voters characterized Israel as “one of the most important” issues to them in the upcoming election. Of far greater concern to the respondents are healthcare, medicare and social security, and gun safety.

US Jewish voters, nevertheless, remain highly supportive of the Jewish state: 91% said they were generally pro-Israel, while 56% identified themselves as “critical” of the Netanyahu government.

The survey also found that the vast majority of American Jews identify as Democrats over Republicans — roughly 62-25%, with the rest having no party affiliation.

“While Jewish voters have differing opinions about the major Democratic candidates, the poll demonstrates that they will overwhelmingly support any of the current Democratic candidates over President Trump at nearly equal levels, and that Israel is not driving the Jewish vote,” said Frederick Yang, one of the pollsters.

While a large majority of US Jewish voters disapprove of Trump’s performance on domestic policy issues — from taxes to healthcare and reproductive rights — a slim majority approves of his management of US-Israel relations.

Fifty-one percent of Jews said they approved of his Israel policies; 39% said they disapproved. A slightly larger majority (52%) said they approved of his decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights.

The US Jewish community appeared much more divided on Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Whereas 45% approved of the move, 42% said they were opposed to it.

US Jews are similarly split on a dimension of the president’s peace plan that would allow Israel to annex the existing West Bank settlements: 44% approve of that policy and 40% disapprove of it.

Breaking with past US administrations, the Trump administration released its long-awaited plan last month, envisioning the creation of a Palestinian state in about 70% of the West Bank, a small handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, most of Gaza and some areas of southern Israel — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, disarm Hamas and other terror groups in the coastal enclave, and fulfill other conditions.

The proposal also allows Israel to annex settlements, grants the Jewish state sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and overriding security control west of the Jordan River, and bars Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel.

Header: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders I-Vt., smiles during his campaign event in Carson City, Nevada on February 16, 2020. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

A BIG Coronavirus mystery: Where are the children?

The Harvard Gazette spoke with Marc Lipsitch an epidemiologist and head of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, about the course of the epidemic, including the still-unresolved question of its effect on children.

Q&A [excerpts]

Marc Lipsitch

GAZETTE: You’ve been quoted you as saying you expect between 40 percent and 70 percent of humanity to be infected with this virus within a year. Is that still the case?

LIPSITCH: It is, but an important qualifier is that I expect 40 to 70 percent of adults to be infected. We just don’t understand whether children are getting infected at low rates or just not showing very strong symptoms. So I don’t want to make assumptions about children until we know more. That number also assumes that we don’t put in place effective, long-term countermeasures, like social distancing for months at a time which, I think, is a fair assumption. It may be that a few places like China can sustain it, but even China is beginning to let up.

GAZETTE: You mentioned children having been hit only lightly by this. What about other parts of the population? What do we know about the impact of this from a demographic standpoint?

LIPSITCH: It’s definitely the case that the older you are, the more at risk of getting infected you are and, if you get symptomatic infection, the more at risk of dying you are. Men also seem to be overrepresented among those getting severe illness. The reasons why are a really important research question. One thing that also needs to be looked at is the impact on health-care workers because they are at high risk of getting infected, and I would like to know whether they’re at higher risk of getting severe infection. Some of the anecdotal cases of young physicians dying make me wonder whether they’re exposed to a higher dose and that’s making them sicker.

GAZETTE: What’s the most important unanswered question to your mind?

LIPSITCH: One of the most important unanswered questions is what role do children play in transmission? The go-to intervention in flu pandemic planning is closing schools, and that may be very effective or it may be totally ineffective. It’s a costly and disruptive thing to do, especially in the United States, because many people rely on school breakfast and lunch for nutrition. So we really need evidence that closing schools would help. We need detailed studies in households of children who are exposed to an infected person. We need to find out if the children get infected, if they shed virus, and if that virus is infectious. The second issue that we should be trying to get ahead of is the extent of infection in communities and in places that aren’t doing extensive testing.

GAZETTE: What do we know about for sure about how children are affected by this virus?

LIPSITCH: We know that the cases of children sick enough to get tested is much lower per capita than those of adults. And we also know that, in China outside of Hubei province, the difference between children and adults is smaller. Children are still underrepresented, but they’re a larger part of the total than inside Hubei province. That would suggest that part of the equation is that they are getting infected but they’re not that sick — it’s easier to identify less-severe cases in a system that’s not overwhelmed as it is in Hubei. But we don’t know whether they’re infected and not as sick or whether there are a lot of kids that aren’t getting infected even when they’re exposed.

Header: An adult and child wear flu masks in Manila, Philippines. AP photo.

Read the full article on The Harvard Gazette