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Jerusalem Gets Touchy-Feely
Israel Faxx News Services

The Old City of Jerusalem will be engulfed Monday in a human hug to promote love and unity among religions and cultures. Thousands are expected to gather at four locations around the Old City, from where they will fan out and surround the city's walls in a "huge human hug," according to a statement.

The hug is being organized by Lovers of Jerusalem, a group "unified by a commitment to make the world a more loving and respectful place, starting here in Jerusalem," according to its Web site.


Poll: 71% of Israelis Want U.S. to Strike Iran if Talks Fail

By Ha'aretz

Fully 71 percent of Israelis believe that the United States should launch a military attack on Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to halt Tehran's nuclear program, according to a new poll.

The survey, commissioned by Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center and the Anti-Defamation League, found that 59 percent of Israelis still believe the war in Iraq was justified, while 36 percent take the opposite view. Some 65 percent believe that the United States is a loyal ally of Israel, with only 11 percent saying the opposite.

A slightly higher proportion, 73 percent, described President George W. Bush as friendly. Forty-eight percent attributed U.S. support for Israel to strategic considerations, while 30 percent credited American Jewry and 17 percent cited shared values and a shared democratic tradition.

Regarding America's importance to Israel, there was near consensus: 91 percent said that close relations with the U.S. are vital to Israel's security. Some 51 percent of respondents predicted that the U.S. will ultimately impose an agreement on Israel and the Palestinians, while 43 percent disagreed.

In addition, 52 percent of respondents described American Jewish support of Israel as "sufficient," while 33 percent did not. About half of all Israelis believe that American Jewry is in danger of disappearing due to assimilation, the poll found.


Palestinian Held in Olmert Plot

By Israel Faxx News Services

A Palestinian employee of Doctors Without Borders is suspected of planning to assassinate Ehud Olmert. Jerusalem District Court charged the 25-year-old Gaza man Thursday with hatching a plot on the Israeli prime minister's life in collaboration with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group.

According to the indictment the suspect, who was arrested last month, entered Israel using his accreditation with Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian aid organization, and carried out reconnaissance in Jerusalem. He is accused of gathering intelligence ahead of a planned PFLP attack on Olmert or other senior Israeli officials.

The PFLP, which assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2000, had no immediate comment. Doctors Without Borders sought to distance itself from the case. "All our staff are hired for professional reasons and I don't think" the group "can be held liable for their personal activities in every respect of their life," Doctors Without Borders representative Duncan McClean told Israel Radio.


US Urges Restraint as Mideast Violence Continues

By David Gollust (VOA-State Department)

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas Thursday to discuss the latest outburst of violence in Gaza. Rice, appealing for restraint by all sides, is expected to visit the region again within a matter of weeks.

State Department officials are watching the intra-Palestinian violence and Israeli retaliation to rocket firings from Gaza with concern though they say the events of the last few days have not derailed U.S. efforts to revive Middle East peace talks.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice appealed for restraint on the part of all the parties while acknowledging that Israel, which has conducted air strikes in Gaza, is entitled to self defense from Gaza missile attacks.

"We understand that the Israeli government has a right to defend itself, and they have explained that their actions over the past day or so have been trying to stop further rocket launches into Israeli territory, rocket launches that have injured Israeli citizens.

"But we've also urged them to consider the consequences of their actions on the Palestinian infrastructure as well as on what effect it might have on the prospects for moving forward the political process," he added.

McCormack put the blame squarely on Hamas for the latest intra-Palestinian violence in Gaza. He said to achieve peace Palestinians must resolve the fundamental political contradiction posed by the Islamic movement, which seeks to both govern and remain an armed faction.

The United States has asked Israel over the next several weeks to, among other things, dismantle some security checkpoints in the West Bank and allow Palestinian bus travel between the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority is to develop and then enact a plan by late June to stop the rocket firings into Israel from militant factions in Gaza. U.S. officials describe the plan as a set of benchmarks, as opposed to deadlines, aimed at improving the climate for political talks.


Tanks Edge into Gaza Strip as Air Strikes Intensify

By Ha'aretz

The Israel Defense Forces sent tanks a short way into the Gaza Strip for the first time since November Thursday in response to continued heavy rocket fire on southern Israel. Palestinians fired almost 30 Kassam rockets at Israel Thursday.

In addition, the IDF stationed artillery batteries along the Israel-Gaza border, also for the first time since November, though no shots were fired, and continued its aerial attacks on Gaza, killing six Palestinians. At least three of the dead were Hamas members.

The tank incursions, accompanied by infantry, took place at two locations in Gaza - the Strip's northern tip, and a ridge west of Sderot. Both incursions stayed within a kilometer of the border. Their main goal was to assist in spotting crews launching Kassams, and they are expected to remain there for a few days.

The incursions were also meant to signal to the Palestinians that continued rocket fire could lead to a major ground operation in Gaza. Thus far, the government has not approved any more substantial ground operations, but the IDF believes that if the Kassam strikes result in heavy casualties, this decision could change. The cabinet will meet on Sunday to decide whether to escalate the military response.

A senior army officer expressed satisfaction Thursday over the government's decision to allow the limited ground incursion, as well as the decision to resume assassinations of Hamas operatives. The army's basic approach remains unchanged, he said. It wants to avoid escalation or intervention in the internal Hamas-Fatah clashes. However, he added, if the rocket attacks on Sderot continue, escalation may be unavoidable, and the army must prepare for this.

Altogether, the IDF conducted five aerial strikes Thursday, and such strikes are expected to continue in the coming days. The first one targeted the Gaza City headquarters of a Hamas force, killing one Hamas member and wounding about 25. Shortly afterward, the Air Force fired a missile at a car in Gaza City, killing a senior Hamas operative and seriously wounding another. The third strike, again in Gaza City, hit a guard post near a Hamas office building, killing a third Hamas member.

Thursday evening, the Air Force fired a missile at a car in Rafah, which the IDF claims was carrying the launch crew that had fired rockets at nearby Kerem Shalom shortly before. However, Palestinian sources claim that the strike killed a father and his two sons while they were riding on a garbage truck.

Meanwhile, the Fatah-Hamas clashes continued despite the latest ceasefire, killing at least three people in Gaza - one from Hamas and two from Fatah - and causing Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to cancel a planned visit to the Strip. Altogether, at least 44 Palestinians have been killed since the fighting began on Sunday.

The clashes have intensified the disagreement in Israel's security establishment over the balance of forces between Hamas and Fatah. While the IDF believes that Hamas is winning the battle against Abbas' forces - with some even saying that Fatah is finished as a significant fighting force in Gaza - other defense officials say the army's assessment ignores the facts.

An evaluation of Tuesday's Hamas-Fatah clash at the Karni Checkpoint prepared by Western security officials argues that Fatah forces preformed well against a rival that was better armed, better trained and numerically superior. Consequently, these officials have asked Israel to give Abbas the tools he needs to fight Hamas - first and foremost, the ability to pay his security services' salaries.

Israel's security establishment, however, is still divided over whether to do so, with opponents arguing that Fatah has already lost in any case. Hence a more optimistic assessment of Fatah's performance could increase Israel's willingness to help Abbas.


Christians, Jews Abroad Step In Over Kassam Protection in Sderot

By Ha'aretz

On Thursday, in light of the security situation, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a private organization funded mainly by contributions from the United States, announced it would fund the work to increase Sderot's protection against Kassams, which could start in the coming days.

Scenes of dozens of people shoving each other and begging to get on buses leaving Sderot proved a painful illustration of the frustration and fear of the residents. One reason for the pressure they are under is the sense of insecurity stemming from the lack of shelters in the city.

Ha'aretz sought to understand how much money has been invested in the town in recent years and where - in lieu of the state - private bodies have stepped in.

The demand to reinforce houses in the area around the Gaza Strip arose in March 2001, when the first Kassams landed. Out of the four regional councils and the city of Sderot, the reinforcement of the houses in Kibbutz Nahal Oz was approved. But even that stopped. As the situation deteriorated over the past year, attempts were made to get approval to reinforce 5,000 homes within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip those with tile roofs and no shelters or secure rooms.

In February, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised the heads of the regional councils that reinforcement would be approved and pledged NIS 300 million for the job. Some NIS 10 million has been approved for an initial survey. Since then, the Home Front has submitted to various bodies an estimate of NIS 900 million for necessary reinforcement.

Sderot has 58 public shelters, none of which are suitable for extended stays. According to the city's security officer, 30 shelters "have no basic infrastructure like electricity and can't be inhabited even for five minutes."

Twenty-eight shelters are being used for other purposes like afternoon day care centers or synagogues, and lack shelter equipment. A request for funding to improve infrastructure in the shelters was submitted to the Home Front Command, but the funding has not been received.

With regard to the kibbutzim, according to local estimates, each kibbutz has about 15 to 20 shelters, most uninhabitable for long periods. The money to change the situation, millions of shekels, has not been found.

Last June a Kassam fell on a school in Sderot. As a result, it was decided to move ahead on reinforcing the schools. Twenty-four schools were given reinforced spaces where students would go if the alarm was sounded. Parents and others argued that full protection was necessary, and petitioned the High Court. In the end it was decided to fully reinforce classrooms in grades one through three, but this has not been started; 151 public kindergartens have been reinforced.


Kassam Hits Sderot Synagogue After Olmert Visit

By YnetNews.com

At least three rockets landed in the southern town of Sderot at around midnight Thursday, one of them hitting a synagogue just minutes after the end of a celebration. A number of people suffered from shock and the building was damaged.

The incident took place shortly after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Sderot and heard the Color Red alert system being activated. He was rushed by his bodyguards to one of the houses in the city and later visited the home of Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

Moti Shitrit, an eyewitness who lives near the synagogue, told Ynet that about 300 people had gathered there in order to bring a Torah scroll into the local synagogue. Luckily, the event ended minutes before the rocket landed there and most worshippers left the place. A few people remained behind to tidy up the synagogue. "We were saved by luck. If people had not gone home, many would have been killed here. God rescued us," he said.

Olmert spoke to Avi Farhan, a resident of Sderot who had been evacuated from Yamit in the Sinai and moved to the city. When the surprised prime minister noticed Farhan, he asked him what he was doing there. Farhan responded, "I live here in Sderot. I moved here after we were uprooted from (the Gaza settlement of) Elei Sinai."

Farhan described to Olmert how the residents were dealing with the Kassam attacks. "We are experiencing non-stop shooting and the IDF must act and respond. The residents here must be assisted not only in dealing with the shooting but also by rehabilitating them, both physically and emotionally."

Arieh Cohen, a Sderot resident, arrived at Peretz's home. After he was denied entrance by Olmert's bodyguards, he shouted, "The prime minister is a coward. You came like a thief in the night with all your bodyguards.

"What I'm doing is not provocation. I want to talk to you. Only yesterday night missiles flew over my head. I want to hear the prime minister giving me answers. We keep on hearing you and you don't let us voice our opinions.

In spite of the rocket barrages, most Sderot residents remained in the city. According to unofficial estimates, between 2,500 to 3,000 people (out of 23,000 residents) have left the southern town so far. Most of those who left were aided by billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak, about 800 were helped by the Defense Ministry and the Sderot Municipality, and the rest left on their own.


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