NEWS BRIEFS:

Israel in the Year 2000

Israel's Ministry of Tourism is gearing up for an expected influx of Christian visitors during the year 2000--and the possibility of a visit by Pope John Paul II. Estimates range from a mere half-million above normal (2.5 million, about 40% of which are Christians) to over six million visitors. Much hinges on political developments. Some in the tourism industry are quietly concerned about the country's capacity to handle the increase in traffic. Although Pope John Paul II has accepted invitations from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Vatican has yet to set a date.

Election Moves

Polls still show a close race between Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu and Labour leader Ehud Barak in the May 17 balloting for prime minister, with one bizarre scenario leaving the Centre party's Yitzhak Mordechai the biggest winner if he makes a June 1 runoff. Barak has yet to enjoy a boost in the polls from two recent developments: Meimad and Gesher joined his "One Israel" list and a declassified report squelched most talk of him fleeing the 1995 Tze'elim training accident. Meanwhile on the right, Ze'ev "Benny" Begin managed to unite Tekuma, Moledet and his new Herut to improve their collective chances. A record number 54 political parties are running for seats in the next Knesset. Forty have little hope of meeting the mandate threshold of 1.5% of the electorate. Nevertheless, they are advocating a myriad of concerns-- immigrant's rights, legalizing marijuana, protecting the environment, building casinos, promoting transcendental meditation, advancing feminism… the list goes on.

Anti-Semitism in the Palestinian Authority

Official PA media continue to engage in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, according to a recent Government Press Office report. In a crossword puzzle clue in the official PA newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda on February 18, 1999, the clue for 7 across read "Jewish center for eternalizing the Holocaust and the lies." The correct answer: "Yad Vashem" [Israel's national Holocaust memorial]. Another example was taken from a religious program on official PA television on February 16, 1999: "The Jews are used to deceit… they faked the words of Allah and changed their religion and laws and they are wicked. And whomever does not rule according to what Allah brought down, whomever rebelled against this… is the descendant of the Satans and he is worthy of receiving the punishment of the oppressors… their history is full of guilt and crimes…"

Israeli Arab Advances

Abdel Rahman Zuabi, a 66-year-old justice of the Nazareth District Court, has been sworn in as the first Israeli Arab on the Supreme Court. Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi tapped Zuabi, saying "his appointment highlights the successful integration of the Arab community in the life of the state." Then Rana Raslan, 21, of Haifa was named Miss Israel for 1999 on March 9, becoming the first Israeli Arab to win the title. Chosen as the Arab sector's beauty queen in Israel three years ago, she replaces Linor Abergil, the reigning Miss World. Following her victory, Raslan said "It does not matter whether I'm Jewish or Arab, we are all human. We can live in co-existence, and I will represent Israel in the most appropriate way."

Iranian 'Moderates' Received in Rome

Iran's President Mohammed Khatami was warmly received by Italy and the Vatican in early March, an apparent breakthrough in relations between his ruling moderate faction and the West. In the first such venture since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Khatami even had a "cordial" audience with Pope John Paul II. The reform-minded cleric came bearing a message of détente and dialogue, but his regime continued to draw criticism for human rights violations, support for terrorism and seeking to acquire arms of mass destruction. Accompanying Khatami was Foreign Minister Kamal Harrazi, who reverted to hard-line positions by saying "the State of Israel has no right to exist." For his part, the Pope has made calls for closer ties between Catholicism and Islam. In 1997, the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Libya, despite months of intense but private US lobbying against the move.

Aliyah Up From Russia

Immigration to Israel from the Russian republic jumped 100% during the first two months of this year over the same period in 1998, the Jewish Agency reported. Aliyah appears to be on the upswing due to economic troubles and a rise in anti-Semitism. In January and February, 3,347 people emigrated from Russia to Israel, up from 1,676 in the same two months in 1998.

PA Police Battle Gaza Rioters

Palestinian Authority police spent two days in mid-March combating rioters in Gaza angered by a death sentence given a Hamas activist. The protests erupted when a security court sentenced Raed Attar to die by firing squad for shooting another PA police officer trying to arrest him and two other Hamas-affiliated policemen allegedly planning terror attacks in Israel before the May elections. After two Arab teenagers were shot by live fire, the unrest spread in Rafiah and Khan Yunis for a second day. At least 85 people were injured, including 70 policemen, as security forces used gunfire, clubs and teargas against protestors throwing stones and bottles in scenes reminiscent of the intifada. PA chairman Yasser Arafat returned early from Jordan to deal with the riots, and has yet to approve this 25th death sentence handed down by PA courts. Hamas' military wing warned the PA of "the worst consequences" if the execution is carried out. The case highlighted rivalries between PA security branches and friction between powerful families and the PA's arbitrary rule. Meanwhile, Israel reacted to the sentencing of Attar and two cohorts also wanted for murdering Israeli soldier Guy Ovadia 5 years ago. "It was only when [Attar] killed a Palestinian officer that he was brought to trial and sentenced to death," PM spokesman David Bar-Illan noted. "That is not a happy indication for us, that the murder of Jews is not cause for punishment, but for promotion."


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