NEWS BRIEFS

Looking for a new home

Israeli intelligence sources have confirmed as essentially correct an April 30 report in Asia Times which states that Yasser Arafat is looking for a new home in exile--should Israel terminate the Palestinian autonomy or banish PLO leaders. The report said Arafat had put out feelers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Morocco, and had also approached other members of the Non Aligned Movement and Islamic states. However the Asia Times went on to quote "informed experts in Palestine" as suggesting the Palestinian centre of power would be transferred to Cairo in the event of an emergency. They cited Egypt's hardened stance toward Israel in recent months, its geographical proximity and its border with the Gaza Strip as being in Egypt's favour, should Arafat need a new exiled base. On April 10 Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai warned that Israel could take back Hebron and other PA controlled cities if it needed to--but stressed that this was not something Israel was interested in doing.

First Israeli astronaut chosen

The Voice of Israel reports that an Israeli pilot has been chosen to join a NASA space mission next year. The mission is the first in which an Israeli will participate, and is part of a 1996 joint US/Israel research agreement.

Libyan Atrocities

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's regime has assassinated 328 opponents in 17 years, according to a statement released in late April by a Cairo-based opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. The NFSL said that of those killed between April 1977 and August 1994, 294 had died inside Libya--84 from torture, 50 executed in public, 140 in premeditated accidents and 20 in fights with "collaborators of the regime". Thirty-four others had been killed abroad, mainly in Europe. The Vatican recently restored diplomatic ties with Libya, despite attempts by the US to strengthen its campaign to isolate the regime.

New headquarters for ICEJ photo

Seventeen years after it opened its doors with a vision of comforting Israel, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem--publishers of the Middle East Digest--moved its world headquarters in mid-May to a building in the city's German Colony. The capital's mayor, Ehud Olmert and Israelis from all walks of life attended the event.

Saudis give PLO $1.13 million

The "Saudi Committee to Help Palestine Freedom Fighters" donated 4,254 million riyals (US$1,13m) to the PLO on May 3. Every three months the PLO gets money from the agency, which has deducted it from the salaries of the 200,000 Palestinians working in Saudi Arabia. At the end of February, the PLO received US$2,4 million. And last September, the Saudi government announced a US$100 million gift to the PLO as part of its financing of autonomy.

More Israelis, more settlers

Israel turned 49 in mid-May with an estimated population of 5,8 million, a 2,6 per cent increase (148,000 more citizens) over the past year. About 82 per cent of the population is Jewish. Around 68 per cent of the growth stems from natural increase--more births than deaths--while 68,000 immigrants arrived in Israel over the year. Meanwhile, according to the Population Registry of the Ministry of Interior, at the end of 1996 there were 150,230 Jewish residents in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, an increase of nine per cent for the year.

Warming Israel-Turkey relations raise temperatures in Syria Israel's relations with strategic Turkey have improved of late, despite the fears which followed the election a year ago of Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbakan--partly on a promise to cut military ties with Israel. A recent, first-ever visit to Israel by a Turkish defence minister led to plans for joint exercises involving Israeli, US and Turkish forces. The two countries also discussed threats facing both--terrorism, and enemy efforts to develop surface-to-surface missiles and non-conventional weapons. Turkey has undertaken to step up military relations with Israel despite criticism from Arab and Islamic countries. Israel wants to upgrade Turkey's US-made M60 tanks and conclude deals to sell its Falcon early-warning aircraft systems and Popeye air-to-surface missiles to the Turkish Air Force. Turkey spends US$6,9 billion (4,1% of its GDP) a year on defence. A Nato member, Turkey is officially secular (though 99 per cent Muslim), and military chiefs are agitating for a more sustained crackdown on Islamic extremism. His prestige waning under this pressure, Erbakan has offered to hold early elections.

Iran's nuke program delayed

Setbacks in the Iranian nuclear programme will likely delay Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb until well into the next century, according to an Associated Press report on May 5, quoting Israeli and other sources. "They are going to make it in the end,"' a senior Israeli intelligence official reportedly said. "But it will be the middle of the next decade." The receding timetable, the result in part of US pressure on Iran's nuclear suppliers, could ease any international concern that Israel will follow through sometime soon on threats to attack Iran's nuclear sites. The Iranians deny they want to build nuclear arms. "Definitely not. I hate this weapon," President Hashemi Rafsanjani replied when asked in a recent CBS 60 Minutes interview whether his government sought the bomb. But the US government and independent analysts say the kinds of nuclear equipment the Iranians have tried to buy for their nuclear energy program clearly suggest plans for weapons development.

Asking the wrong question

Human rights groups were taken aback in early May when a Gazan lawyer was arrested by Palestinian Authority police as a result of an article he wrote in praise of the Israeli justice system. Naim Salameh wondered in an article prepared for a law review when the PA would boast a system as democratic as the one which allowed for an Israeli prime minister to be investigated after claims of corruption were made. He was arrested (before the article was due to appear), and PA Attorney-General Khaled al-Kidra said he would be tried in a military court charged with hampering PA security. Freedom of speech could not be an excuse for such offences, he said. After strong demands for his release, the PA freed him, claiming he had actually been held on suspicion of belonging to the militant Islamic Jihad group (which, incidentally, is not outlawed in Gaza).


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