NEWS BRIEFS:

MILLENNIUM PASSES QUIETLY IN ISRAEL

Israel welcomed the new Millennium with a mix of excitement, indifference and anxiety. Like elsewhere, there was a collective sigh when the Y2K computer bug had little local impact. Derisive media predictions of scores of Christians coming here to commit suicide or violent acts to "force the end" proved equally false. After an avalanche of sensationalist stories right up to zero hour, reporters found it hard to explain the scarcity of Christian tourists, as some 40,000 visitors for Christmas rushed home in time for the millennial changeover. In one example of the media over-hype, Jerusalem psychiatrist Dr. Yair Carlos Bar-El, reported no new cases of "Jerusalem Syndrome" in the last 10 days of 1999, admitting, "So far, I’ve seen more journalists than patients." This past year, he attracted a steady stream of interviews after estimating 40,000 Christian pilgrims at the Millennium would develop the mental disorder, with 1000 needing treatment.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces were on full alert for the real possibility of Islamic terrorism, as 400,000 Muslims flocked to the Temple Mount on the last Friday of Ramadan, by chance also New Year’s Eve. After Ayatollah Khomeini declared it "Jerusalem Day," it has become a day of widespread Arab/Muslim protest against Israel’s reunification of the city in 1967. Concerns heightened after Jordan and the US arrested suspected Islamic terrorists linked to rich Saudi-exile Osama bin Laden, and placed Jerusalem on their short list of high-profile Muslim targets at the Millennium. Israel used a heavy security presence, and new surveillance cameras and emergency control centers in Jerusalem to ensure quiet. Police did nab an Arab man from Nazareth trying to sneak an automatic handgun and 100 rounds of ammunition onto the Temple Mount. Waqf officials claimed the man had only come to pray.

In Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority released 2000 symbolic white doves into the air at midnight New Year’s Eve, despite predictions by experts they would not fly at night and strong criticism from animal rights activists. A number of birds died, startled by fireworks overhead. On Christmas Eve a week earlier, PA officials were disappointed the crowd of 15,000 in Bethlehem was actually smaller than last year’s, and far below their predictions of 60,000. Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser blamed US President Bill Clinton’s travel warning.

A Gallup poll of Israeli Jews, taken on the eve of the new Millennium, found that most, while generally unfamiliar with Christians, are nonetheless positive about them visiting the Holy Land. The nationwide survey also found that only one in ten Israeli Jews have ever encountered a Christian missionary attempt - a number that runs counter to common perceptions of widespread missionary activity in Israel today. When queried about American Christians, the vast majority believe they are friendly and supportive of Israel, and not anti-Semitic. Israelis also welcomed, by a ratio of 5 to 1, the planned visit of Pope John Paul II in the year 2000.

During the Pope’s historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land from March 21 thru March 26, he will visit the Galilee, bathe in the Jordan, hold masses in Bethlehem and Nazareth, meet Israel’s chief rabbis in an interfaith event at the Western Wall, and tour Yad Vashem to pay respect to victims of the Holocaust. In deference to the PA, the pontiff will not be escorted in the Old City by Israeli officials and has added a Palestinian refugee camp to his itinerary.

YELSTIN’S CHRISTMAS WISHES COME TRUE

Just days after resigning as Russian President, Boris Yeltsin made a three-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land to celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 6, along with six heads of state and church leaders from more than a dozen Eastern European states. Yeltsin took time out to address questions about Chechnya and claim the new, democratic Russia had conquered anti-Semitism. He broke into "tears of joy" when meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem for a banquet, saying, "I want to tell my friend that he should believe in Russia and trust Russia." Yeltsin added that his appointed successor, acting President Vladimir Putin, shared his "special feeling" for the Palestinians. They sat together in the Church of the Nativity the next morning for a Christmas Day Mass, but Yeltsin suffered a severe coughing attack and flew home immediately. Israelis officials were relieved when Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, turned down invitations from Arafat and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to attend the celebrations.

WEIZMAN IN HOT WATER OVER SECRET CASH GIFTS

Already under fire for advocating a return of the Golan to Syria, outspoken Israeli President Ezer Weizman has admitted to accepting $453,000 in secret cash gifts from French millionaire Edouard Seroussi during his political career. Weizman, however, said he has done nothing wrong and that the money went to pay huge medical bills incurred by his late son Shauli, wounded in the 1970 War of Attrition and later killed in a traffic accident in 1990. But journalist Yoav Yitzhak charges Weizman withdrew the funds from a trust account while serving in the Knesset, cabinet minister, and now as President for him, his wife Reuma, and his daughter Michal. Seroussi also funneled $6.5 million from 1984-86 to Weizman’s now-defunct Yachad party, some of which later turned up in Weizman family accounts.

At one point, Weizman aides suggested the disclosures were in retaliation for his not granting a pardon to troubled Ma’ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi, now indicted for conspiracy to commit murder. In turn, Yitzhak claimed that he had come under pressure from Weizman confidants to withhold his story, contending it could harm the peace process. Before the charges surfaced, Weizman already was battling calls for his removal after he told a delegation of Golan residents, "I cannot be the president of the whole country," and then threatened to resign if a referendum over the Golan fails.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has approved a criminal probe into the Weizman affair, after a police "examination" of documents turned over by Weizman noted questionable business and tax transactions. Despite widespread calls for him to resign, Weizman has vowed to await an official verdict. Many predict he will seek an "honorable" exit any day now.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who sorely needed Weizman’s help to sell a Golan deal, may now find him a liability. But Barak himself is facing a stiff new political challenge, as the Registrar for non-profit organizations has ordered an investigation into activities of four NPO’s linked to his campaign for prime minister. The Registrar suspects the groups were set up last year by Barak relatives and close associates "in order to channel donations for Barak’s campaign," in breach of campaign financing laws. His suspicions strengthened after noticing the associations had several of the same founders, addresses and committee members. Barak was personally questioned in the matter, and on January 27, the State Comptroller is to issue its own report on the network of pro-Barak associations.

HIZB’ALLAH FIGHTS ON DESPITE ISRAELI CHARITY

The radical Islamic militia Hizb’Allah continues to attack IDF units and their allies in the south Lebanon security zone, despite renewal of Israel-Syria peace talks and a series of humanitarian gestures by Israel. The Israeli goodwill gestures, all taken within the last seven weeks, include: Freeing 5 Hizb’Allah members; Returning 2 bodies of Hizb’Allah gunmen killed in clashes with SLA troops; A 72-hour ceasefire to allow recovery of five more Hizb’Allah corpses from recent battlefields; And release of 27 Hizb’Allah detainees in exchange for 2 SLA soldiers held in Beirut. The moves were made in hopes of obtaining information regarding IAF navigator Ron Arad, missing since 1986, and three IDF soldiers (Zacharia Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz) missing since a tank battle in Lebanon in June 1982. Hizb’Allah denies any knowledge of Arad, but promised to search for information to exchange for other Hizb’Allah fighters and top clerics held by Israel. In a new development, a former member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who defected to a Scandinavian country claims that he saw Arad alive a few years ago in a military prison near Teheran.

Disregarding the Israeli benevolence, Hizb’Allah actually has escalated hostilities in the zone. On December 30, Hizb’Allah staged its first suicide bombing run in years, as a driver detonated explosives packed in his van in the village of Klea, less than two kilometers from the Israeli border town of Metulla, injuring one IDF soldier and 12 Lebanese civilians, including seven children. On January 9, an SLA soldier became the first casualty of the new year, and several more have died since. Iran is boosting the flow of arms and money to Hizb’Allah and other anti-peace terrorist groups. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has pledged to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon by July, although he prefers to do so in the context of signed agreements with Damascus and Beirut. The IDF has submitted a graduated pullback plan to Barak, but continues on high alert for spectacular Hizb’Allah attacks intended to counter recent setbacks and disrupt peace talks.

MORE CARNAGE IN LEBANON

At dawn on New Year’s Day, Muslim extremists ambushed a Lebanese patrol near the northern port city of Tripoli, killing 4 army officers and taking 2 hostage before killing them later. Lebanese forces responded by chasing some 150-200 members of the radical Takfir-and-Hijrah group - which seeks to establish a strict Islamic state in Lebanon - into the nearby mountains. The clashes ended after a total of 11 soldiers, five civilians and some 50 militants were killed. A leading Beirut daily, A-Safir, confirmed the militants were supported and financed by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, accused by the US of masterminding the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The group is also linked to a series of attacks on churches in recent months. Five men were arrested in December for carrying out bomb attacks on two churches in the Tripoli area, while assaults on several churches in Beirut killed one person. Takfir-and-Hijrah also is blamed for the murder of two women in north Lebanon, including a pregnant woman who was beheaded and dismembered. Additionally, a Maronite Catholic Sister was found dead in East Beirut, apparently strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted on the way to her convent. In response to the nun’s murder, Catholic schools throughout Lebanon suspended classes for more than 200,000 students in mid-January. The vicious attacks exposed the animosity Muslims still retain a decade after the Lebanese civil war, raising fears among 110,000 Lebanese Christians in the security zone concerned about reprisals against them if Israel withdraws.

Meanwhile, two Palestinians terrorists, apparently upset with Moscow’s advance against Islamic separatists in Grozny, staged an attack on the Russian Embassy in Beirut on January 3, leaving one assailant and one security officer dead and six Lebanese injured. The two Palestinian gunmen fired shots and rocket-propelled grenades at the Embassy compound and a nearby police station. Lebanese forces killed one attacker and captured the other. One assailant was quoted as saying, "my only dream is to kill a Russian."

BATTLE ROYALE OVER TEMPLE MOUNT TREASURES

In August, the Israeli Government approved the opening of a modest emergency exit to the underground "Marwani Mosque," also known as Solomon’s Stables, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. However, the Waqf dug a massive entrance and dumped the fill material in the Kidron Valley. In December, an irate Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert ordered the construction halted, calling it "a serious violation of the status quo, of serious damage to one of the most important archaeological sites in the world." He was backed up by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, Minister of Internal Security Shlomo Ben-Ami ("We will definitely not tolerate this."), and the Antiquities Authority ("The Waqf has committed an archaeological crime."). But Prime Minister Ehud Barak overrode the Mayor’s "stop-work" order, allowing work to proceed so long as it was coordinated with the Antiquities Authority. The defiant Waqf continued to enlarge the opening, which now measures 30 x 50 meters and is nearly 15 meters deep.

Meanwhile, enterprising archaeology students sifted through the dirt dumped in the Kidron and soon displayed a treasure trove of Temple-era antiquities, confirming that significant remnants of Jewish history were being destroyed. Among the valuable artifacts from the First and Second Temple eras, and Byzantine and Ottoman times, were an intricately carved frieze, the rim of a stone vessel, and a piece of cut marble thought to be part of a table matching descriptions of elegant furniture from the Second Temple. The students further claimed, and Antiquity officials validated, the Waqf also had sifted through the fill and kept such items as columns and large decorated building stones on the Mount. The news has sparked protests, but no official actions to halt the Waqf’s activities. Muslim authorities prohibit archaeologists from digging on the Temple Mount to forestall proof of its Jewish heritage, something they termed "fairy tales."

ANNAN BACKS ISRAELI BID FOR FAIRNESS AT UN

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the American Jewish Committee in December he supports permanent status privileges for Israel in the UN. Annan acknowledged the misguided efforts to isolate Israel and the "regrettable impression of bias and one-sidedness" at the UN. Annan did note some progress as anti-Semitism finally was listed as a form of racism by the General Assembly last year. However, he noted the body again has just passed anti-Israeli resolutions that "might prejudice the outcome of delicate [peace] negotiations."

The new US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, echoed Annan’s sentiments at the AJC dinner. Arab states have blocked Israel from membership in its natural regional group, so the Clinton administration is trying to arrange temporary membership in the West European and Other grouping. Holbrooke said, "we have urged, cajoled, pleaded and even begged," and although a "breakthrough" appeared imminent, some southern European states - believed to be Italy, Portugal and Spain - renewed their opposition to Israel’s admittance. Israel may be picking up a new ally in the fight for fairness - the small, west African state of Benin plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem and is pledging to support Israel at the UN.

Sources for this DIGEST: Jerusalem Post, Israel Line, Ha’aretz, Reuters, AP, Arutz-7, CNN, IBA News, CSW, Washington Post, BBC, New York Times, IMRA, Daily Telegraph, Newsweek, Sunday Times, Jerusalem Report.


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