Mideast Report

SYDNEY (JTA) — Maccabi Australia has welcomed a loan of $500,000 that the Israeli government advanced to help the victims of the bridge collapse at last month's Maccabiah Games in Israel.

The loan, which had been requested by Maccabi Australia and several Australian Jewish groups, was designed only to provide temporary help, according to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The loan's beneficiaries are expected to return the monies once insurance companies pay out compensation claims.

Tom Goldman, president of Maccabi Australia, told more than 400 Maccabi team members and friends over the weekend that the loan had been matched by the Maccabi World Union.

Two Australian athletes were immediately killed — and dozens of other participants at the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games were injured — when a pedestrian bridge collapsed at the Ramat Gan stadium on July 14, plunging scores of people into the Yarkon River below. Two more Australians died weeks later as a result of complications linked to contaminants in the river water.

Bethlehem opened after 4-week closure

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel has lifted an internal closure that it imposed four weeks ago on the West Bank town of Bethlehem.

Israel imposed similar internal closures on other West Bank cities in the wake of a July 30 twin suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 14 Israelis. But those closures had been lifted before this week.

A general closure sealing off the West Bank and Gaza Strip from Israel remains in effect.

The closure of Bethlehem drew international criticism, especially from Christian groups who said some pilgrims had encountered difficulty gaining access to visit what is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.

The Vatican's envoy to Israel called on the Israeli Foreign Ministry earlier this week to lift the blockade.

Israel had maintained the closure of Bethlehem because Israeli security officials believed that suspected leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas and those who planned the July 30 attack were hiding in the city.

Before lifting the closure on Wednesday, Israeli security forces rounded up some 15 Palestinians suspected of hostile activities against Israel.

In a related development Wednesday, Israel shut down the offices of a Hamas charity operating near Hebron. Israeli officials said they had found materials inciting violence against Israel during a search of the facility.

Japan tells Israel: try peace, then trade

JERUSALEM (JTA) — During a three-day trip to Japan this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly was told by Japanese officials that closer economic ties between Japan and Israel would depend on breaking the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto on Monday, the Japanese leader told Netanyahu that Tokyo was looking for advances in the peace process so that Arabs could end their "pessimism," according to Japanese officials.

During his visit, aimed at strengthening economic ties with Japan, Netanyahu encountered criticism about Israel's ongoing closure of the territories.

Israeli major admits killing British tourist

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israelis have reacted with shock to the news that an Israeli soldier, not a terrorist, was behind the recent murder of a British tourist.

Israeli police arrested Maj. Daniel Okev, a reserve army officer who admitted to the Aug. 13 murder of Jeffrey Hunter, 22, and the wounding of his girlfriend, Charlotte Gibb.

Although he admitted to picking up the tourists near Eilat and later shooting them, Okev, 45, a father of two, could not offer a motive.

"Maybe I need a doctor," Okev said during a detention hearing last Friday. "Maybe I have a split personality."

When police came to arrest Okev last Friday at his home in Even Yehuda, near Netanya, he surrendered, handing over his gun and saying, "I know why you're here."

Israel, Russian sign accord on terrorism

MOSCOW (JTA) — Israel and Russia have signed an agreement to broaden law enforcement cooperation.

The accord was signed last week during Israeli Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani's visit here.

Until 1993, Russian and Israeli police and intelligence agencies had no contacts.

The accord deals with criminal investigations, preventing terrorism and security measures on flights between the two countries.

Russian Interior Ministry representatives are expected to visit Israel soon. An Israeli police official has been based in Moscow since 1994 to work with law-enforcement agencies.