NEWS BRIEFS:

Outfoxed?

Iraq's Saddam Hussein emerged from Operation Desert Fox--the biggest American military action since the 1991 Persian Gulf War--virtually unscathed and characteristically defiant, claiming victory for Iraq over the combined might of the US and Britain. Over four nights, hundreds of cruise missiles fired from ships and aircraft destroyed military and state targets in Baghdad and in southern Iraq. While the threat of an Iraqi strike on Israel was considered remote, the Netanyahu government prepared for that eventuality, instructing citizens to update gasmasks and stock up on materials for sealing rooms against the possibility of a chemical warfare attack. Israel said it retained the right to strike back, if targeted. The air-strikes were in retaliation for Saddam's refusal to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors tasked to find and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Their aim: to "degrade" Iraq's ability to make and use such weapons, and to threaten its neighbours. Although the US and Britain claimed success, the jury is still out on exactly what Desert Fox achieved. Saddam vowed the UN weapons inspectors would never be allowed back into Iraq, thus robbing the international community of a major mechanism--admittedly a flawed one --capable of preventing Baghdad from establishing a weapons of mass destruction capacity. A major Iraqi opposition group called on other anti-Saddam organisations to "to take advantage of the new circumstances to work seriously ... to liberate Iraq from the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein". That call echoed those of many commentators in the western media, but the regime shows no sign of faltering. Has Saddam won again? With an uneasy stalemate in place, Iraq--and the region--will have to wait and see.

PA legalises death penalty for land sales to Jews

The Palestinian Authority has passed a law making it a capital offence for Arabs to sell any property to an Israeli, and prohibiting any Israeli ownership of real estate "in Palestine", on pain of death. As the law contains no definition of what is considered Palestinian territory, it could therefore apply to land anywhere in today's Israel, as well as disputed areas such as eastern Jerusalem and Judea-Samaria. The "Foreign Ownership of Real Estate in Palestine" law forbids any "non-Arab Palestinian" of possessing "any real estate in Palestine". While it provides for special exceptions in some cases, "occupiers" (defined as "the Israeli occupying government and its civil and military institutions, settlements and whomever is under their authority") are specifically excluded from property-ownership. All foreigners who possess property must submit details of their holdings to the PA authorities within one year, or risk having it confiscated. Palestinians selling or brokering the sale of land to Israelis will have committed "high treason", while the Israeli parties to the deal will be guilty of causing "harm to national security". Both offences carry the death penalty. Ma'ariv's Nadav Haetzni quoted a senior jurist in the civil service as saying: "This is a racist law, which, if it were legislated by a friendly country such as Britain, we would interpret as a declaration of war against us, and which would cause an immediate severing of relations with it. We must understand the meaning of the legislation. This law states that any Israeli who owns land in a place that the Palestinians determine is Palestine, certainly in the settlements and in Jerusalem, will be sentenced to death. The same holds true for the Israeli government" (Dec 3).

Messianic Jews targeted

Several cases of violence and harassment by ultra-orthodox vigilantes have concerned Christians and Messianic believers in Israel, but a new poll shows that Israelis in general are tolerant of different faiths. In a recent incident, almost 30 members of a Be'er Sheva-based Messianic congregation were besieged in their meeting place by several hundred protestors reacting to rumours they were planning to baptise two busloads of Jewish children. After a four-hour stand-off, police managed to escort the group past the angry protestors, some of whom spat and threw stones. Congregants denied the charge, saying the group does not believe in infant baptism. The results of a poll carried out in November indicate that Israeli society is more tolerant than the incident, and several others, would suggest. About 70 per cent of those polled said Messianic Jews loyal to the State of Israel, deserve to be citizens with equal rights. Eight-four per cent agreed that, in a democracy, the individual has the right to live according to his own faith and conscience, even if his beliefs are in opposition to the opinion of others. And almost 60 per cent said they would oppose a law aimed at restricting "the right of any religious movement to promote its faith".

Unfazed by PA corruption, the nations pledge more

Early December saw more than 40 countries pledge US$3 billion in aid for the Palestinian Authority--just after reports were published exposing yet more misspending of donor funds by the PA. The US announced that it planned to increase its aid by $400 million, while extending its current $100 million-a-year assistance programme for another five more years. The day before the donor conference was hosted in Washington, the London Sunday Times reported that wealthy supporters of Yasser Arafat had benefited from $20 million in European aid money intended to house needy Palestinians. The story, reproduced on the front page of the Washington Times for all conference participants to see, said the EU had written off millions of dollars used to finance luxury flats, "with Italian granite-fitted designer kitchens", for a general, a police chief and other Arafat supporters. Money earmarked for cheap housing in needy, PA-ruled areas of Gaza and Judea-Samaria ended up paying for 10 well-appointed apartment blocks, 90 per cent of which had been given to "loyalists who had been in exile with Arafat and now served in his administration". Back at the donor gathering, The Associated Press reported that "the nearly doubling of US aid is based on the notion that combating poverty in Palestinian-controlled areas will promote peace agreements with Israel and curb conflict." After the conference, the Israeli government expressed its annoyance with the fact that Israel was blamed for the poor quality of life enjoyed by the Palestinians; that Israel's own financial contribution to the PA was not acknowledged; and that no mention was made of the widely-reported financial corruption in the PA in recent years. In mid-1997, PA auditors found that nearly 40 per cent of the self-rule authority's budget had been stolen or misappropriated.

Sources: Sunday Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Associated Press, Voice of Israel, Ma'ariv, CNN, BBC World Service, Reuters


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