Israeli lawmakers give initial approval to bills quieting mosques

An Israeli flag waves in front of a mosque in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on November 14, 2016. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he backed a bill limiting the volume of calls to prayer from mosques, a proposal critics have called a threat to religious freedom. (AFP)
Updated 09 March 2017
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Israeli lawmakers give initial approval to bills quieting mosques

JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament gave preliminary approval Wednesday to two controversial measures that would limit calls to prayers from mosques, including one prohibiting the use of loudspeakers at all hours, after shouting matches between lawmakers.
The bills — the second of which would ban loudspeakers in urban areas between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 am — will eventually have to be reconciled, with three more readings required before they can become law.
They were approved after a heated discussion that turned into shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Arab lawmakers, some of whom tore copies of the legislation and were ejected from the chamber.
The bills passed 55-48 and 55-47 in the Knesset, or parliament.
While the bills in theory would apply to any religious place of worship, Muslims say it is clearly meant to silence the traditional call to prayer at mosques.
The measure has become commonly known as the “muezzin law” after the Muslim official charged with calling the faithful to prayer, often through powerful speakers mounted on minarets.
The notion of Israeli legislation silencing mosques has sparked outrage around the Arab and wider Muslim world.
Supporters of the move say it is needed to prevent daily disturbance to the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim Israelis.
Last month, government ministers endorsed the softer version of the bill prohibiting loudspeakers overnight, which limits its scope to the first of the five daily Muslim calls to prayer just before dawn.
That version would apply to mosques in annexed east Jerusalem as well as Israel, but not to the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site, according to an Israeli official.
An earlier draft limiting volumes throughout the day had been rejected because it might have silenced the siren sounded in Jewish areas at sunset on Friday to mark the start of the Sabbath.
However, the stricter measure was revived by members of the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu party, part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, leading to Wednesday’s two votes.
It was not immediately clear if that version would apply to Al-Aqsa, located in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.
One of the sponsors of the less rigid bill, Motti Yogev of the far-right Jewish Home, said the proposal was “a social law that aims to enable people to sleep.”
“Loudspeakers have not been here forever, and in recent decades there are alarm clocks for whoever wants to wake up for the mosque,” he said.
Ahmad Tibi of the predominantly Arab Joint List alliance of lawmakers called the measure “a racist act.”
“This is an important Muslim religious ceremony, and (the Knesset) has never intervened in a Jewish religious event,” he said.
Opposition has not only come from Arabs and Muslims.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has spoken out against the move, saying existing noise pollution regulations provide a solution.
Government watchdog groups have called the measure an unnecessary provocation that threatens freedom of religion.
At Wednesday’s debate, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin said the new law was necessary since the existing rules set a low fine that causes police to disregard noise violations.
The new proposed law sets a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,714, 2,573 euros) to transgressors.


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 4 min 45 sec ago
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.