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Palestinian Prisoners Transferred to Ramallah, Gaza for Festive Welcome

By The Times of Israel

The third phase of Palestinian prisoner releases, agreed as a confidence-building measure to support ongoing peace talks, went ahead late Monday night and into Tuesday morning. The 26 prisoners were driven out of the West Bank's Ofer Prison. First, three prisoners were taken by van to the Erez Crossing for release into the Gaza Strip, and five others, residents of East Jerusalem who were eligible for Israeli citizenship, were taken to an undisclosed location.

Shortly after midnight, the remaining 18 convicts, were transferred from the prison to the Beitunia checkpoint, en route to celebrations in Ramallah. Jailed since before the Oslo Accords of 1993, all 26 men had blood on their hands.

In Jerusalem earlier Monday evening, dozens of people, many of whom had lost family members to terror attacks, protested the move, and a last-minute High Court petition to stop the releases was rejected. Israeli critics of the releases put the blame on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the powerful settler lobby, with many charging that the government should have chosen to stop settlement construction instead of freeing convicted murderers to build confidence between the sides.

Netanyahu for his part is expected to approve plans to build 1,400 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the coming days. Secretary of State John Kerry, due in Israel later this week, praised the prime minister for releasing the prisoners.

On Monday night, dozens of protesters armed with black umbrellas marched from the Prime Minister's Residence to the Old City of Jerusalem, where 15 of them demonstrated outside the home of Ahmed Halaf, one of the 26 prisoners slated to be released.

The organizers, representing victims of terror attacks and other opponents of the prisoner releases, had originally gone to court to be allowed to protest, but eventually came to a deal with police that only a limited amount of people would approach the home of Halaf.

Earlier in the day, dozens of people protested at the entrance to Jerusalem, attempting to burn tires and block the main road into the city before being stopped by police. Two people were arrested just after midnight Sunday during a protest in front of the Prime Minister's Residence against the releases. The protesters tried to run past the security guards at the entrance to Netanyahu's home, banging on pots and yelling out slogans against the government's decision to release the inmates.

It was the mirror image in the West Bank through Monday, as the coming releases generated wide excitement in Palestinian society, where prisoners held by Israel are revered as heroes and freedom fighters. Families decorated their homes and neighborhoods with posters of their loved ones who were returning home and planned large feasts.

The family of Ahmed Shihadeh was busy preparing a welcoming celebration in the Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank. Shihadeh, 51, has spent nearly 29 years in prison after being convicted in the murder of an alleged collaborator with Israel. His mother, Haseba, 75, said she has "spent my life" visiting her son, but hasn't been able to make the trip for the past two years because she can no longer walk. "I've visited him in 14 jails. I would leave my kids screaming and go for a visit," she said.

In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber, the sound of kettle drums and ululating women filled the air as residents braced for the return of Jamal Abu Jamal, who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for a stabbing attack.

Women holding Abu Jamal's picture sang and danced in circles and praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for securing his release. His mother, Rayouf, 77, who is unable to speak after suffering two strokes, sat in a chair with tears in her eyes. "Since she heard the news, she's getting better," said Abu Jamal's sister Huda. "I can't express how happy she is."


Report: US Deal will Trade Off `Jewish' Israel for 1967 Lines

By The Times of Israel

Secretary of State John Kerry will offer Israeli and Palestinian negotiators a political trade-off: Israeli recognition of the 1967 lines as a basis for the future Palestinian state, in return for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, Palestinian sources told the Saudi daily Al-Watan on Sunday.

According to the sources, the mutual recognition will constitute the core of a framework agreement to be signed by the end of January, and negotiated in greater detail during the following months. "The coming weeks will be difficult for the Palestinian and Israeli sides, since they will need to make tough decisions," a source told Al-Watan. "On the one hand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will need to live with a text speaking of the 1967 borders, and the Palestinians, for their part, will need to live with a text speaking of Israel's Jewishness."

Talks have hit a roadblock in recent months, with the sides failing to come to terms over Israel's demand to leave IDF forces in the Jordan Valley, and Palestinian demands to release Israeli citizens jailed for terrorist acts before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. According to one unconfirmed Israeli report, Kerry has offered to release the American spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard to coax Israel into freeing the jailed Israeli terrorists.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Arab foreign ministers have reportedly sent letters to President Barack Obama and Kerry rejecting Israel's demand to recognize it as a Jewish state and refusing any Israeli military presence on the future Palestinian state. "These letters were sent so that the American administration avoids any reference to the issues rejected by Arabs and Palestinians among the ideas Kerry is going to present," a source told Al-Watan.

Meanwhile, Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk on Sunday warned Abbas against signing a framework agreement, which he dubbed "a second Oslo Accord."

"If an agreement is reached, Netanyahu will sign it and take it to the Knesset," the deputy head of Hamas's political bureau wrote on his Facebook wall. "But where will the person signing on the Palestinian side take the agreement? The issues raised concern among all Palestinians: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, the right of return and, of course, security."

The Palestinian parliament which must ratify any agreement, Abu Marzouk noted, has not convened in years. Hamas has repeatedly rejected peace talks. "I pray that the disaster of Oslo won't repeat itself," he concluded. "Because this time the price will be recognition of the Jewishness of the state, God forbid."


Oren: Israel Must Recognize All Forms of Judaism or Risk Alienating US Jews

By The Times of Israel

Israel must recognize the legitimacy of all forms of Judaism, emphatically including Reform and Conservative Judaism, or it will alienate those movements, the just-returned Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said in an interview.

Oren, who in October ended a four-year stint as Israel's envoy in Washington, DC, said it was all well and good for Israel to describe itself as "the nation-state of the Jewish people" — a formulation, now routinely used by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which Oren said was adopted on his recommendation — but "we've got to stand behind it. Now we've accepted the formula, let's live up to it."

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Oren warned that "if Israel does not work to make itself the nation-state of all the Jewish people, and be truly pluralistic and open about this, then we risk losing these people." The former ambassador was commenting on the current state of US Jewry and its relationship with Israel.

Asked, first, about the impact of the settlement enterprise on Israeli-Diaspora ties, he said certain Jews were troubled by the expansion of settlements, and others were "dissatisfied we're not building more and faster… I had as much opposition from the American Jewish right as I did from the American Jewish left," he added, "for being in favor of the two-state solution. For effecting the moratorium [on settlement building] in 2010. For prisoner releases."

Oren described the American Jewish community as being "similar to what many physicists say is occurring in the universe — that it's expanding and contracting at the same time. So the American community — read the Pew Report — they're contracting through intermarriage and assimilation. However, at the same time, there's a strong kernel of the American Jewish community, not just Orthodox, but also Jews who've gone on Birthright, who are more connected Jewishly and more connected to Israel, and that's expanding… So if you look down the road, 20 or 30 years from now, the American Jewish community may be smaller, but it could also be more Jewishly identified and more connected to Israel."

At the same time, he warned, "on the constriction side, you have not only Jews who are disaffected because of Israeli policies, but also because the State of Israel doesn't recognize Reform and Conservative Judaism." He said the only thing that all the rabbis he met with agreed upon — be they Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — was their opposition to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which doesn't recognize even most US Orthodox conversions today.

More broadly, he said, Israel needed "to recognize all forms of Judaism. We have to recognize the roles of those movements in Judaism within different life-cycle events in Israeli life. We risk alienating them. The amazing thing about the Reform movement is that, after so many years of not being recognized by the State of Israel, they remain so pro-Israeli. That to me is extraordinary."

He could not be fully confident, he said, that this would last forever. "I`ll sit with American Jewish Reform and Conservative leaders who care passionately about Israel," Oren said. "But they'll say to you: I can't tell you how hurtful it is that the State of Israel doesn't recognize my form of Judaism. It is the worst pain when you say something like that. It's something we have to address as a society if we are to remain the nation-state of the Jewish people."

The ex-ambassador's comments came two weeks after Netanyahu became the first prime minister to address the Union for Reform Judaism's biennial US gathering. In a speech via satellite to the event in San Diego, Netanyahu said "Israel is, and it must continue to be, the homeland of the entire Jewish people, the entire Jewish people. That's the place where all Jews — including Reform Jews — experience nothing less than `audacious hospitality.'" He added that he was "committed to doing everything in my power to ensure that all Jews feel connected to Israel and to each other."


PA TV Pushes Arafat Poisoning Libel on Kids Show

By Israel NationalNews.com

Official Palestinian Authority TV recently broadcast interviews of children repeating the libel that Jews "poisoned" former PA Chairman Yasir Arafat, as part of a children's program called The Best Home. (See http://youtu.be/K1uEOBGiCiA)

Despite the conclusions of a Russian team of forensics experts determining that Arafat died of natural causes, echoing similar French findings in refuting the PA libel against Israel, the PA pledged last Thursday it would continue investigating Arafat's death.

The libel seems to be having a hard time dying down, especially among the PA's propaganda machine. In the children's program, a young girl is seen saying "the Jews poisoned [Arafat] and I hate them very much. Allah will repay them what they deserve." Meanwhile a young boy is less clear about his rhetoric, stating "he died from poisoning by the Jews. Well, I don't know what he died from, but I know it was by the Jews."


Israeli Population Surpasses 8 Million

By YnetNews.com

Israel's population grew in 2013 by 1.8%, or 147,000 people, bringing the country's total population to 8.1 million, according to data from the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

Some 19,200 Jews moved to Israel from other countries. The most significant rise was in the number of immigrants from France, with 3,120 French Jews moving to Israel in 2013, a 63% jump from the previous year (1,916). The largest group of immigrants, 7,520, came from the former Soviet Union. Some 2,680 immigrants came from the United States.

The oldest person to immigrate this year was a 103-year-old man from the U.S., and the youngest was only five weeks old. Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver said: "Every immigrant who arrives to establish a home in Israel makes me very happy, and I am hopeful the aliyah trend will continue to grow."

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said, "This is an era of making aliyah by choice, not due to adversity, so it is important that we continue the Jewish Agency's efforts to strengthen the Jewish identity of hundreds of thousands of young people in the world and deepen their connection to Israel."




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