Mideast Report

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Representatives from approximately 125 high-tech firms convened in Jerusalem this week for an Internet conference aimed at promoting Israel's image as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East.

"The purpose of the meeting is to gather all the Internet companies and Israel on one side, and bring in people from abroad, who already recognize that Israel is the center of Internet in the world. After Silicon Valley, we call it `Silicon Wadi,'" one of the exhibition organizers, Yisrael Peled, told Israel Radio.

International companies interested in business opportunities in Israel attended the conference, as did Israeli software and Internet companies.

In a related development, the Mountain View-based Sun Microsystems firm signed an agreement with Israel's Trade Ministry this week to purchase software in Israel.

Religious officials can observe digs

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel's Antiquities Authority will allow officials from the Religious Affairs Ministry to observe excavations.

The recent move is aimed at easing friction between government-funded archaeologists and the ultra-religious community.

Fourteen Religious Affairs officials will be granted access to excavations that the Antiquities Authority routinely carries out preceding construction projects.

Antiquities officials hope the arrangement will halt the sometimes violent attempts by ultra-religious demonstrators to prevent excavations at sites they claim contain ancient Jewish graves.

In one such incident earlier this month, two protesters assaulted archaeologists at a site in northern Israel, even though the excavations had uncovered remains of a Byzantine-era storehouse and no bones.

Cruise ship terrorist faces another trial

ROME (JTA) — Youssef Magied al-Molqi, a Palestinian convicted of hijacking the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985, will go on trial in September for escaping last year from the Rome prison where he was serving a 30-year jail term.

Sources said two other Palestinians would be tried as accomplices in the escape.

Molqi, who was jailed for participating in the hijacking and for killing wheelchair-using passenger Leon Klinghoffer, failed to return to Rome's Rebibbia Prison after a 12-day good conduct leave in February 1996.

He was eventually arrested in Spain and was extradited to Italy last December.

Top rabbi fuming over smoking ads

JERUSALEM (JPS) — The weekly newspaper of the ultra-religious Sephardic Shas Party will refuse all cigarette and tobacco product ads because Shas leaders say they violate Jewish law.

The paper took this stand after Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that "the managers of cigarette manufacturing companies bear a heavy sin and will suffer divine punishment."

He added that selling cigarettes is a violation of halachah, or Jewish law.

Yosef also said that smokers themselves "should have to stand before a religious court and receive 40 lashes."

The Israel Forum for the Prevention of Smoking greeted Yosef's ruling with enthusiasm.