Troubles in Bethlehem

LIFE FOR PALESTINIAN Christians continues to be difficult. In mid-May, some Christian residents of Bethlehem erect-ed illumina-ted crosses on their rooftops, in a gesture to honour Jesus ahead of millennium celebra-tions. This incensed Mus-lim inhabitants of what used to be a Christian majority town, some of whom--together with PA police--men--forcibly removed them. Fayez Omar, an Arab journalist for Israel TV's Arabic news, broad-cast a report on the tensions in his hometown. For his pains, he was arrest-ed and interrogated by the PA's intelli-gence ser-vice. Upon his re-lease, he found his home had been firebombed. The PA and two Palestinian rights groups have strenuously denied char-ges that Chris-tians-and espe-ci-ally converts from Islam--face dif-ficul--ties under PA rule.

Israel acknowledges Pollard

ALMOST 13 years after US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard was convicted by a US court for spying for Israel, an Israeli government has for the first time confirmed that he was an Israeli agent, "handled by high-ran-king Israeli officials..." As a result, the government said in a letter from its legal advisor to Pollard's lawyer in early May, "the State of Israel acknow-ledges its obligation to Mr Pollard and is ready to accept full responsi-bility accordingly". Pollard, an Israeli citizen, said in reaction he was "relieved that the truth has finally come out; thankful that the government had the cou-rage and the inte-grity to ack-now-ledge the truth; and hon-oured that I am finally a full-fledged member of the State". Now Pollard hopes for a par-don-. His supporters have con-tended that he gave Israel critical information the US should not have been with-holding from an ally in the first place. Other convicted spies in the US have received con-siderably lighter sentences.

Netanyahu will oppose new "anti-missionary" initiative

PM BINYAMIN NETANYAHU'S media advisor David Bar-Illan has reassured Christians concerned about pending "anti-missionary" legislation that the government will "pass no laws which limit freedom of religion and contravene the international conventions to which it is signatory". The statement was elicited by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem after a new measure passed preliminary reading in the Knesset last month calling for a three-year prison sentence or a fine of around US$15,000 for anyone found guilty of "preaching with the intent of causing another person to change his religion". Introduced by a member of the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, the bill was supported in the first reading by 37 coalition members, including Netanyahu. Although coalition whip Meir Sheetrit explained the vote as part of a legitimate strategy to "bury the initiative in committee", concerns were aroused in Christian circles, since the prime minister had previously gone on record as opposed to an earlier legislative attempt to criminalise possession of missionary materials.

In a letter sent on May 27, the ICEJ urged Netanyahu to issue a statement which would reassure "those millions of Christians who are motivated by genuine love and respect for the Jewish state and people … we fully understand Jewish concerns over inducements for conversion, and note that such conduct is covered adequately by current law. Concurrently, we find it difficult to defend the censorship provisions which have been offered of late as amendments to this law …" In response, Bar-Illan confirmed that the bill was "unacceptable to us" and reiterated Shetreet's pledge that it would "die in committee". Opponents of these legislative efforts argue that they are undemocratic, and spell public relations trouble for Israel, which has a good record of respecting freedoms of speech and religion.

Jerusalem Day 1998

ISRAELIS CELEBRATED the 31st anni-versary of the reunification of Jerusalem on May 24, with festi-vities culminating in a huge jubilee parade through the streets of the capital. Memorial ceremonies were held for soldiers who fell in the battle to re-unite Jerusalem in 1967. In another Jerusalem Day event, the Israeli activist group Yeru-sha-layim Shelanu ("Our Jeru-salem") held a demonstration outside Orient House, the de facto (and illegal) PLO headquarters in eas-tern Jerusalem. During the event, Yerushalayim Shelanu's spokes-man Ronn Torossian was assault-ed by several PLO security agents after the group tried to place an Israeli flag on the pro-perty. "To-day, on Jerusalem Day," he said later "we see that the Arabs respond with violence to peaceful Jewish protesters … every inch of Jerusalem is Jewish, and it is ours. Their violence will not scare us. In fact, we will continue with our response of increasingly pop-u-lating eastern Jerusalem." The reunification of Jeru-sa-lem has been described as the most signifi-cant religious event for Jews in 2,000 years. The world community in general does not recognise Israel's sovereignty over it.

Leftist bias exposed

ISRAEL BROADCASTING AUTHORITY director-general Uri Porat on May 26 suspended two senior news editors with Israel TV's Channel 1 prime-time news programme Mabat, for doctoring video foot-age to smear PM Binyamin Netan-yahu. The two were sacked for "tendentious editing" after a report was edit-ed to com-bine two uncon-nected events at a football victory rally: calls by a small group of football supporters of "death to Arabs" (which lasted five seconds out of a three-hour event), and Netanyahu's greeting to the rally. The effect left the impression that the prime minister had heard and even encouraged the calls. Sup-por--ters of a free press have long expressed concern about the extent of left-wing bias, and Netan-yahu-bashing, in the Israeli media.
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