Archive for March, 2014

Israel passes law meant to draft ultra-Orthodox

March 12, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers have passed a contentious law meant to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.

The issue lies at the heart of a cultural war on the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. The matter featured prominently in elections last year that led to the establishment of a center-right government, which has pushed for the draft reforms.

Wednesday’s vote passed 67-1 in the Knesset. The opposition boycotted the vote to protest what it says are strong-arm tactics by the ruling coalition. For years exempt from military service, the ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. They say conscription threatens their community.

The exemptions have enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share.


Ultra-Orthodox rally in Israel against draft bill

March 02, 2014

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied Sunday in the streets of Jerusalem, blocking roads and paralyzing the city in a massive show of force against plans to require them to serve in the Israeli military.

The widespread opposition to the draft poses a challenge to the country, which is grappling with a cultural war over the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. The issue of army service is at the core of that struggle. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens, largely have been allowed to avoid military service, compulsory for most Jewish men, to pursue their religious studies. Older men often don’t work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.

The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept Jewish culture alive through centuries of persecution.

But the exemption has enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share. The issue featured prominently in last year’s election, which led to the establishment of a center-right government that has been pushing for reforms that will require ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army. Parliament is expected to vote on the conscription bill this month.

“The change is beginning,” Ofer Shelah, whose Yesh Atid party stands behind the push to draft the ultra-Orthodox, told Israeli Channel 10 TV. “This (law) will create a deep cultural change in the ultra-Orthodox public.”

Shelah and his party believe integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the military ultimately will lead to their inclusion in the workforce and help sustain Israel’s economic growth. Israel’s central bank chief, as well as international bodies like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, warn that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threaten Israel’s economic prospects.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox streamed toward the entrance of Jerusalem as a heavy haze settled on the gathering. Men clad in traditional black suits and hats bowed and swayed in prayer as others danced in circles. Spectators packed the balconies and roofs of nearby buildings as a loudspeaker blared prayers. Many held signs reading “the Torah shall not be forgotten.” Police said more than 300,000 people attended.

The city began grinding to a halt hours before the rally began. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police officers deployed for the rally. He said authorities closed the central bus station and halted nearly all public buses into the city. In addition, public transportation inside the city was being limited from afternoon until night. Some schools and government ministries also closed early.

Usually only men attend such public demonstrations, but ultra-Orthodox community leaders encouraged women and young children to take part. A major thoroughfare in Jerusalem was closed for traffic and reserved for ultra-Orthodox women in accordance with the community’s strict separation of the sexes. Many women, wearing long skirts and head coverings, held prayer books close to their faces as they prayed, while young children ran between them.

“They came out of fear of one thing: that they are going to be changed, that they will be put in a melting pot and changed,” ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Israel Eichler told Israeli Channel 2 TV. According to the draft bill up for a vote in Israel’s parliament, only a fraction of eligible ultra-Orthodox Jews would be expected to serve, said Inna Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for lawmaker Shelah, who is also a member of the committee drafting the bill.

The army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers — roughly 60 percent of those of draft age — by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army, she said.

If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the bill calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers. Beginning this year, the bill would require all ultra-Orthodox Jews aged 17 and a half to register at army recruitment offices, although not all ultra-Orthodox would be obliged to serve, said Nisan Zeevi, spokesman for lawmaker Yaakov Peri, who has helped draft the bill. He said the law would permit 1,800 ultra-Orthodox Jews to forgo army service for religious studies.

Orthodox Judaism expert Menachem Friedman said the law doesn’t go far enough to properly integrate the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society. But he said Orthodox leaders are sensing growing hostility from the secular majority, which has had to foot the bill for the community’s welfare.

“Israeli society is saying enough is enough,” said Friedman. “Everyone understands there is a very big problem and it cannot go on this way.”

Dahlan, exiled Palestinian leader, builds comeback

February 28, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Fueled by millions in Gulf aid dollars that are his to distribute, an exiled Palestinian operative seems to be orchestrating a comeback that could position him as a potential successor to aging Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

In a phone interview from London, Mohammed Dahlan spoke of his aid projects in the Gaza Strip, his closeness to Egypt’s military leaders and his conviction that the 79-year-old Abbas has left the Palestinian national cause in tatters.

If staging a successful return, Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief once valued by the West for his pragmatism, could reshuffle a stagnant Palestinian deck. Some caution that Dahlan has made too many enemies in Abbas’ Fatah movement and will continue to be ostracized by those planning to compete for the top job in the future.

Dahlan, 52, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he is “not looking for any post” after Abbas retires, but called for new elections and an overhaul of Fatah. “Abbas will leave only ruins and who would be interested to be a president or vice president on these ruins?” Dahlan said. “What I am interested in is a way out of our political situation, not a political position.”

In the past, he and Abbas were among the leading supporters of negotiations with Israel as the preferred path to statehood. Dahlan now believes the current U.S.-led talks “will bring nothing for the Palestinian people,” alleging Abbas has made concessions that his predecessor, the late Yasser Arafat, would not have.

Abbas aide Nimr Hamad and senior Fatah official Jamal Muhaisen declined to comment Thursday on Dahlan’s statements. Last week, Muhaisen said anyone expressing support for Dahlan would be purged from Fatah.

A bitter feud between Abbas and Dahlan seems mostly personal, but also highlights the dysfunctional nature of Fatah, paralyzed by incessant internal rivalries, and Abbas’ apparent unwillingness to tolerate criticism.

Abbas banished Dahlan in 2010, after his former protege purportedly called him weak. Dahlan has since spent his time between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Before the fallout he was one of a few Palestinian leaders who saw themselves as potential contenders for succeeding Abbas.

Dahlan grew up poor in a Gaza refugee camp, but as a top aide to Arafat became the territory’s strongman in the 1990s, jailing leaders of rival Hamas which was trying to derail Arafat’s negotiation with Israel through bombing and shooting attacks.

Dahlan was dogged by corruption allegations at the time, like Arafat and several other senior Palestinian politicians, but has denied wrongdoing and was never charged. In exile, he has nurtured political and business ties in the Arab world.

Dahlan said this week that he has been raising millions of dollars from business people and charities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for needy Palestinians. Last year, he said he delivered $8 million to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

“In Gaza, I do the same now,” he said. “I’m collecting money for desalination in Gaza. It’s unbearable. Fifty percent of the water in the houses is sewage water. Hamas and Abbas are doing nothing to solve the real problems of the Gazans.”

When asked if he was buying political support with Gulf money, he said: “This is not political money.” He added that the UAE also provides financial aid to Abbas. Dahlan’s relationship with Gaza and former arch-enemy Hamas is particularly complex.

Security forces under Dahlan lost control of Gaza in a brief battle with Hamas gunmen in 2007. The defeat cemented the Palestinian political split, leading to rival governments, one run by Hamas in Gaza and the other by Abbas in parts of the West Bank, and was seen as perhaps the biggest blot on Dahlan’s career.

However, there are now signs of a possible rapprochement between Dahlan and the Islamic militants — apparently because of Dahlan’s close ties to Egyptian military chief, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Dahlan said he has met el-Sissi several times and supported last year’s coup — he called it the “Egyptian revolution” — against the country’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is the Gaza offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Since the coup, el-Sissi has tightened a closure of Gaza’s border with Egypt. That blockade has squeezed Hamas financially, and the Islamic militants have been looking for ways to pry the border open.

In January, Hamas allowed three Fatah leaders loyal to Dahlan to return to the territory. The Fatah returnees and Hamas officials formed a committee to oversee construction of a new Gaza town to be funded by the UAE, said a Hamas official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the contacts.

Senior Fatah officials accuse Dahlan of trying to split the movement. “Dahlan has created an alliance with Hamas,” Nabil Shaath, an Abbas aide, has told Palestine TV. Dahlan loyalists in Gaza “have distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars without having the movement’s permission,” he said.

Underlying Fatah’s fears about a return of Dahlan is the open question of succession. Abbas was elected in 2005, but overstayed his five-year term because the Hamas-Fatah split has prevented new elections. Abbas has not designated a successor and there is no clear contender.

The only other Palestinian politician with broad support according to polls is Marwan Barghouti, an uprising leader who is serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison. Analyst Hani al-Masri said regional support has boosted Dahlan, but that he’s not a serious challenger yet because he has not offered any plans.

Palestinians “won’t support a specific leader without being convinced of his political platform,” he said.

Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.

Hamas making feature film on Shalit’s capture



A young Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants and held for five years before being traded for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is the subject of an ambitious low-budget film being made by his captors.

The fate of Gilad Shalit, a corporal captured in a deadly cross-border raid when he was just 19, transfixed Israel for years as his captivity in an unknown location challenged what most Israelis see as the state’s sacred duty to bring its soldiers home.

But for the Islamist Hamas movement ruling Gaza, his capture and eventual exchange for more than 1,000 prisoners was a triumph for the “resistance,” an epic worthy of a blockbuster feature — even if produced on a shoestring budget.

A shortage of funds has drastically slowed the production, and even its director said it may not live up to the high-quality epic envisioned.

Entitled “Fleeting Illusion,” the 90-minute film promises revelations about Shalit’s capture and top-secret captivity “about which neither Shalit nor the resistance have spoken before,” director and screenwriter Majed Jundiyeh said.

Jundiyeh, who says he is not a member of Hamas, made the 2009 biopic “Emad Akel” about a commander of Hamas’ military wing who headed Israel’s hit list until he was killed in 1993.

Filming on his latest work began in December, and the first of the film’s two parts was to have been ready for the eighth anniversary of Shalit’s June 2006 capture by Hamas and two other militant groups, whose fighters tunneled into Israel and attacked a border post.

Shalit was eventually released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinians.

Gilad’s father Noam Shalit, who was long the public face of the campaign for his release, declined to speak about the film, saying he did not want to “engage in a dialogue with Hamas.”

“The story is behind us,” he said.

The first scenes of the film were shot in a small room at the ministry of prisoners’ affairs, depicting a dark Israeli cell where Hamas fighter Mustafa Muammar is being questioned after his capture by Israeli troops on the eve of the Shalit raid.

Muammar’s interrogators, played by fellow Gazan actors, plunge his head into a bucket of water to try to make him cough up information that could compromise the operation planned for the next day.

“I dream that this film on Shalit will make me known in the world,” says the actor playing Muammar, 21-year-old Mohammad Radhi, a journalism student by day.

His interrogator is played by Mohammad Abu Qumsane, son of a militant killed by Israel.

“I love being an actor because it is a way of expressing the issue of prisoners with humanity,” he says.

Most of the cast of 40, among them 12 women, are amateurs, says Jundiyeh, who himself plays an Israeli officer.

He says that Mohammad Qarara, cast in the role of Shalit, gets paid “no more than 2,000 shekels ($570, 400 euros) a month.”

– A low-budget production –

The film will by necessity be a low-budget affair, in part because Shalit’s capture prompted Israel to impose a blockade on Gaza that remains to this day, though some of the restrictions have been eased in recent years.

The initial budget for the film, produced by the Hamas government’s culture ministry, was slated at $2.5 million, but Jundiyeh eventually had to settle for a frugal $320,000.

“It could show in the (film’s) quality,” he admitted.

“The Iranian ministry of culture had been expected to finance the film but its support stopped because of deteriorating relations between Iran and Hamas over the situation in Syria,” Jundiyeh said.

Tehran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Hamas, which long maintained a Damascus headquarters, turned on the regime following the 2011 uprising.

But Gaza’s culture minister, Mohammad al-Madhun, insists that bridges with Iran have not been burned and that there is a joint project under way to make a feature film about the devastating 22-day Israeli campaign against Hamas launched in December 2008.

He said the Shalit film captures “the special atmosphere of keeping watch on Shalit, his concealment and relaxed moments on a Gaza beach illustrating civilized and humane treatment of prisoners.”

Gaza resident Noha Nassar said he would like to see the film and learn how Shalit’s captors kept him hidden for so long in the narrow coastal strip, which is nearly surrounded by Israeli forces and closely monitored by aerial drones.

But with Gaza’s cinemas having been destroyed by Islamists several years ago, the film is likely to be screened only by the few cultural institutions still functioning, before being broadcast on local TV.

Source: Middle East Online.